Under the glare of an operating theatre lamp, Paul Renforth at the Freeman hospital in Newcastle demonstrates the £2m Da Vinci robot that has transformed surgery on patients. The four-armed robot is operated by a surgeon from a booth using two finger grips that move the arms and control the instruments on the end of each.
All in, the robot is about 2 metres high and 1.5m across. Its arms go inside the patient though small incisions in the skin. Looking through a 3D viewfinder hooked up to a camera on the robot, the surgeon can magnify, grasp, cut and cauterise tissue inside.
The dexterity of the robot means surgeons can operate with more precision. They can find and remove cancerous tissue nearly impossible to reach otherwise.
The robot is already used for heart bypass operations and to remove cancers throughout the body, including those in the lungs, throat, prostate, bladder, spleen and colon. The next specialty to adopt the robot surgeon will be gynaecology later this year.
“You can rotate the instruments 360 degrees, so they are more dextrous than the human hand,” said Renforth, Da Vinci co-ordinator at the hospital. “We are going into places now that we couldn’t get into before.”
“We treat laryngeal tumours at the back of the tongue, where we can down and underneath and access and cut away the tumours. Normally that would be done by splitting the lower jaw and going in from the side,” he said.
At the end of each operation the instruments on each arm are taken off, sterilised and autoclaved, and reused on the next patient. Most tools can be used up to 10 times before they are discarded.
It is early days for robotic surgery, but at the Freeman cancer operations seem to be more successful, because surgeons can see tumours better and remove tissue more easily. Surgeons learn to operate the robot by practising on cadavers.
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