Leicester doctor makes history by operating with hand-held robotic arm
Surgeon Dr André Ng may look like he is playing a computer game – but in fact he is carrying out a complex heart operation.
Using a hand-held device the same size as a Gameboy, he can manoeuvre a robot arm to insert a tiny wire called a catheter into a patient's heart with pinpoint accuracy.
Yesterday at Glenfield Hospital, he made medical history when he became the first person in the world to use the robotic system to treat a patient with an abnormal heart rhythm.
He said: "It is very exciting to be the first person and hospital chosen to use this new system."
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Although operations to correct heart rhythms have been carried out for the past 20 years, including on former Prime Minister Tony Blair, this new procedure will revolutionise the way it is done.
The surgery involves inserting thin wires, called catheters, into blood vessels at the top of the patient's groin and then up through the body into the heart chambers.
While the catheter is being pushed through the body, x-rays are constantly taking pictures of the patient so the surgeon can follow where the wire is going.
Previously, the surgeon would have had to wear a special lead apron to protect them from the X-ray radiation. The aprons weigh as much as 7kgs (14.43 lbs) and complex operations can last as long as seven hours.
The new robotic arm becomes the surgeon's right hand.
From a control room overlooking the theatre, the surgeon can guide the catheter, twisting, rotating and moving it backwards and forwards, to exactly the right position.
Abnormal heart rhythms are caused by a fault in the electrical wiring system of the heart.
Electrodes on the catheters are used to identify the problem and cure it by burning the heart tissue.
Dr Ng, who is also a senior lecturer in cardiovascular sciences at the University of Leicester, said: "The new robotic procedure is an important step forward.
"While some procedures are straightforward, others can take several hours.
"Because X-rays are used, doctors standing close to the patient wear radiation shields which are burdensome.
"These protracted procedures can lead to clinician fatigue and high cumulative radiation exposure.
"The benefit of the system is that movement of the catheter can be done with even greater precision."
About 600 patients a year have the operation.
Dr Ng estimates almost half of these will be complex cases in which patients would most benefit from the robotic operation. The £350,000 machine is on loan from the American manufacturers and will be used at Glenfield Hospital for a month before it is tested in other hospitals. Ken Crocker, 70, from Burton on Trent, was one of the first patients to have the "robotic" procedure on the NHS.
Before the operation yesterday he said: "I hope it is going to make me better. I am quite excited about being one of the first and not really nervous.
"I am sure the doctors are confident or they wouldn't be doing it."