UK company unveils next generation of robotic surgical arms

A UK company, which is increasing the quality and bringing down the costs of keyhole (laparoscopic) surgical procedures with robotic assistance, has unveiled its new system at the Annual American College of Surgeons Clinical Congress. Robotic systems, designed and manufactured by OR Productivity PLC’s FreeHand, hold and manipulate laparoscopes and cameras during keyhole (laparoscopic) surgical procedures, providing a rock-steady image and eliminating the need for medical assistants to hold them.

Image credits: FreeHand Surgeon

The company’s new robotic arms have been roughly halved in size while retaining a solid image, making FreeHand’s solutions smaller, more precise and more flexible than any other existing robotic medical assistant. FreeHand presented its new system to the public at Annual American College of Surgeons meeting in San Diego. The devices were very favorably received attracting attention from surgeons around the world. Interest in combining FreeHand with the new generation of robotic operating tools that are emerging was widespread among both suppliers and surgeons. The addition of this new robotic arm to its line of products will increase the range of surgical procedures that can easily utilise FreeHand meaning a robot assistant can be provided for the full range of abdominal procedures.

The firm’s clinically-proven system has already been used in over 10,000 Urological, Gynaecological and General Surgical procedures all over the world and is contributing to improved surgical outcomes, patient recovery rates, operating room efficiencies and is lowering overall procedural costs. FreeHand says the system can be integrated with existing operating theatre equipment and practices. It estimates that more than eight million surgical procedures worldwide - and every hospital in the world that performs laparoscopic procedures - could benefit from its products.

Recent research showed that NHS hospitals in England could undertake 17 per cent (280,000) more non-emergency operating procedures every year with better-organised operating theatre schedules. The research, which analysed 2016 data collected from operating theatres in 100 NHS Trusts in England revealed that more than two hours a day are wasted on average. This suggests that operating theatres are significantly underutilised, with each procedure being more costly as a result. The FreeHand system enables surgeons to operate with fewer assistants, thereby contributing to removing one of the key drivers to delays – restriction on staff availability. Combined with the ability to reduce average procedure time, NHS hospitals adopting such a system would allow them to carry out more operations without the need for extra resources, and potentially save hundreds of thousands of pounds in lost procedure time.

Surgeons performing invasive surgery with the company’s robotic arm are able to see a still, steady image of the area they are operating on. In the past, holding a keyhole camera for several hours tended to produce an unstable image. Shaky, ultra-realistic images generated from 3D and 4K cameras can cause motion sickness and nausea when viewed for long periods of time. But FreeHand means that humans are no longer needed to hold the camera, freeing up staff for more skilled work and stopping the need for staff to be pulled from other areas just to hold a camera.

Traditional surgical telescopes and cameras used in keyhole surgery are held and manipulated by the operating surgeon. In addition, they need trained medical staff with a steady hand to hold the camera, all for up to four hours at a time or longer. Holding a camera for this length of time is difficult and uncomfortable, while the quality of the procedure is dependent upon the quality of the image the surgeon sees. This routine activity keeps clinically-qualified medical assistants tied-up for several hours, rather than being free to complete more important tasks throughout the hospital. FreeHand gives a rock-steady image for the surgeon to operate by, and has been shown to reduce the overall length of procedures, as well as freeing-up key medical staff. With both the number and complexity of keyhole surgeries increasing, FreeHand is providing a solution to a crucial part of modern healthcare systems. We’ve roughly halved the size of the arm, making it smaller, more precise and more flexible than any other robotic assistant.

Charles Breese, Chairman of OR Productivity.

With robotics and automated technologies streamlining processes in almost all walks of life, FreeHand’s technology is part of a quiet revolution occurring within operating theatres that could help to cut costs, and increase efficiency and staff availability, whilst contributing to the improvement of surgical outcomes. A currently unpublished study conducted at Colchester Hospital has demonstrated the potential of using FreeHand for emergency surgery, thereby freeing up staff to work in A&E, a surgeon at the hospital confirmed. Breese hopes that FreeHand will be able to alleviate some of the funding and staffing crises faced by the NHS as the service tries to cut costs and become more efficient. With the latest NHS statistics showing 86,000 vacant posts in England alone, and the number of EU nurses arriving down 96 per cent since Brexit, products such as FreeHand are ideally placed to help address staff shortages.

This comes as part of a trend of innovators seeking to revolutionise surgical procedures through the use of robotics in different ways. Dr. Bertalan Mesko, PhD, founder of the Medical Futurist website, predicts that methods of automation - notably artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and 3D printing – will play a key role in making healthcare sustainable in the future. While the high-cost of fully-robotic surgical systems, such as da Vinci Surgery, deters hospitals from using them on smaller operations, FreeHand is currently in talks with partners to combine expertise and build a system that could see the full roboticism of laparoscopic surgery, delivered in a cost-effective way. If current trends continue, the global needs-based shortage of healthcare workers is projected to be still over 14 million in 2030, according to World Health Organization estimates. Automated medical systems that help to quell staff shortages are sure to be crucial in the coming years. With robotics already being integrated into medical procedures, patients, clinicians, surgeons, other medical staff and indeed taxpayers should benefit from the increased safety, efficiency, and cost-cutting impact of technology.

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