'It's got a big impact potentially': Could robots solve the problem of NHS waiting times?

Watch exclusive behind-the-scenes footage, as ITV News Health and Science Correspondent Martin Stew was invited to witness Hugo, the surgical robot, operate on a human kidney for the very first time

Some 7.3 million people are currently waiting for treatment on the NHS. That's a record. Not all require surgery, but for those who do, could robots help cut waiting times and speed up patient recovery?

Guy's and St Thomas' Hospital Trust is the first in the UK to start using 'Hugo' - a surgical robot designed by US medical device company Medtronic.

Similar devices made by competitors have been used for more than two decades, but Hugo's manufacturers have said the greater flexibility could make this a game changer for the NHS.

Compared to invasive open surgery, 'keyhole' or microsurgery means smaller incisions and faster recovery times.

A surgeon demonstrates on a bell pepper to show how Hugo can be used to perform medical procedures. Credit: ITV News

Traditionally, surgeons use instruments on the ends of long rods, but this can be cumbersome and requires doing things in reverse as a result of the 'chopstick effect' - where you have to push left to go right.

Robotic surgery allows the micro equipment - like clamps and scissors - to mirror the movements of the surgeon's wrists. It gives the human operating the robot more dexterity and flexibility, but still complete control.

Robotic equipment is estimated to only be used in 4% of all operations worldwide.

In England, the number of robotic procedures carried out by the NHS has increased by about a third in the last four years from 24,647, in 2018/19, to 35,609, in 2021/22.

Consultant urological surgeon Prokar Dasgupta believes the NHS should prioritise investment in robots to bring waiting lists down.

He told ITV News: "As the waiting lists increase, unless we have more access to this kind of instrumentation we can't do our job. If we have the same capacity as we did before the pandemic we are just going to fail."

One Hugo robot costs around £1.5 million, and surgeons like Ben Challacombe say the costs will be offset by savings in recuperation time and bed blocking.

He told ITV News: "I think it's got a big impact potentially for the wider NHS. In urology, which is my specialty, we've got quite a lot of robotic use already, but in all the other surgeries, general surgery, gynaecology, not many people are using robotics.

Hugo the surgical robot offers a cheaper and more flexible alternative to other devices already in service. Credit: ITV News

"And because this system is easy to pick up and cheaper than the standard system there is much greater potential to roll that out, and greater patients benefits across the country."

Hugo is able to share video of procedures in real time - a bonus for teaching, but also offering the scope to get immediate feedback from surgeons around the world.

Artificial intelligence is also learning to identify different tissue matters, such as blood vessels and muscle to help doctors in the future.

It's sci-fi technology of the future, available today, but with a hefty upfront price tag the rise of the robots may take many more years.

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