Surgeons begin training to use robots for cancer operations with virtual reality

  • ITV Wales Health Reporter Katie Fenton trials VR headset alongside doctors learning how to use robotic arms for surgery

Some cancer patients who require surgery at the Royal Glamorgan Hospital in Llantrisant will be operated on by robots from January.

Cwm Taf Morgannwg University Health Board has become the latest to join the All-Wales Robotic Assisted Surgery Programme - said to be the only one of its kind in the world.

Doctors and nurses are using virtual reality to learn how to manoeuvre robotic arms to perform surgery on colorectal and gynaecological cancer patients.

Teams at the University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff and Ysbyty Gwynedd in Bangor have already carried out more than 100 robotic surgeries since September 2022.

Consultant surgeon Paul Blake will be performing the first surgery using the robotic arms in January.

The programme is backed by £4.2m of Welsh Government funding over five years and £13.35m of health board funding over the next decade. 

Welsh health boards are not the only ones using the technology in the UK, but they are thought to be the only ones in the world sharing data and learning to improve their approach.

The programme aims to reduce cancer treatment waiting times.

Explaining how it will improve patient outcomes, Paul Blake, consultant colorectal and general surgeon, said: "It gives us much more precision and refined surgery so we can remove the patient's tumour and preserve any vital organs nearby.

"So in the end we want a safe operation for our patients, to cure them of their cancer, a quick recovery period and to get them back to their normal life and back to their families as quickly and safely as we can.

"In the longer term we hope patients will spend less time in hospital, so it'll free up hospital beds and because of the visual acuity and the accuracy hopefully it'll minimise bleeds and potentially complications, wound infections, hernias."

One surgery can sometimes take up to six or seven hours, so the robotics will also help ease some of the physicality of the job for staff.

"A lot of keyhole surgeons have problems with neck pain, back pain, wrist pain, shoulder pain," Mr Blake added.

"I've worked with quite a few surgeons at this point who've had time off or have had surgery but with the robot and because it's designed like a human arm, elbow and wrist it does a lot of the heavy lifting work for us."

Jen Smith, technical skills trainer from CMR Surgical, the company providing the state-of-the-art robotic arms, has been training staff at the Royal Glamorgan Hospital.

She said the use of virtual reality helps move surgeons "through that learning curve".

Surgical tools will be attached to the end of the robotic arms with a surgeon operating it using a console.

"If they've experienced it, even if they're not mastered it, it just means they understand what their hands are supposed to be doing," she explained.

"Most of them love it. There's an odd person who doesn't get on with virtual reality, but more than nine out of ten really love it once they understand how to use it. It's a good tool."

The team at the Royal Glamorgan Hospital will carry out their first robot-assisted operation at the end of January, with each patient being assessed for suitability.

Patients could include those with bowel, cervical, ovarian, uterine, vaginal, and vulvar cancers.

Mr Blake, who specialises in bowel surgery, hopes the new technology will go hand-in-hand with Wales' bowel screening programme.

He is urging those eligible to use their home testing kit when it arrives.

"This is obviously a major financial investment but we're hoping to piggyback on the national bowel cancer screening programme," Mr Blake said.

"The best cure for bowel cancer is early detection without a doubt. Keyhole operations, open operations, robotics are fabulous, but the best way to cure somebody is to catch it early before it's spread locally or to other distant organs."

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