A top Newcastle doctor thinks expanding robotic surgery, using AI and copying NASA can help the city's hospitals respond to unprecedented post-Covid p
A top Newcastle doctor thinks expanding robotic surgery, using AI and copying NASA can help the city’s hospitals respond to unprecedented post-Covid pressures.
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A Freeman Hospital professor thinks expanding the use of AI, robotics and big data in hospitals can help the NHS bring down its "bigger than ever" waiting lists.
Professor Naeem Soomro is the director of robotic surgery at the Newcastle Hospitals NHS Trust, and he also leads on robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) for Newcastle Health Innovation Partners.
He's a urology consultant, and has led a team doing 98% of surgery using robots – which he says minimises how invasive it is, and can help to fast-track patients through the system.
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His department uses the Da Vinci surgical robot to carry out procedures including prostate operations. Newcastle Hospitals now has three Da Vincis and another robot called a Mako and 25 surgeons carrying out robotic operations. So far, more than 35,000 robot-aided ops have taken place in the city.
Prof Soomro said he hoped copying NASA by using data to build a "digital twin" of patients would improve surgery – and is evangelical about the benefits of using more technology in the health service.
He told ChronicleLive: "Nobody has done as many robotic surgeries as we have in Newcastle. We have one of the biggest robotic surgery departments and eight specialities using this."
Prof Soomro – who is set to be a keynote speaker at the North-South MedTech Summit being held by the National Institute for Health Research – said technology could help meet the challenges the NHS is facing on the back of the Covid-19 crisis.
He said a key one was to limit the proportion of patients who die in the three months following surgery.
"That's not because of the surgery but due to co-morbidities. So how can we reduce harm and improve outcomes?
"And then half of patients with cancer still have open operations. A patient having an open operation spends three times longer in hospital. They are three times more likely to have complications and spend three times longer in a hospital bed. We believe we can improve bed use and improve patient health after surgery by using more robotics."
Prof Soomro said because robots were "scaleable" it was easier to increase the use of them in surgery than to recruit more surgeons.
The top doctor also explained that taking advantage of all of the data NHS patients accumulate could be a way of "making better predictions".
He said: "We think we can use data to improve surgery much more. All of us have patient care records. Our GPs have lots of records. We can gather data when we do surgery using robotics.
"We think we can use these data sources to improve things and to make, for example, better predictions about if someone is at higher risk of blood clots after surgery when they go home.
"We can fit sensors in people and by doing all of this we can do more to make accurate predictions and do what we can to reduce the 90 day mortality rate."
This is the kind of technology likely to be discussed the summit, and Prof Soomro said he was looking forward to discussing robotics and how to innovate in surgery – "particularly given how the NHS is due to Covid".
Vee Mapunde from the NIHR's Surgical MedTech Co-operative said: "We are really looking forward to some stimulating discussions that will hopefully lead to fruitful collaborations for the use of big data, robotics, internet of things, AR and VR to drive the next surgical revolution."
On the topic of big data, Prof Soomro said it could also be used to mimic a NASA concept called a "digital twin".
"What they do when they have people going off into space is they create a virtual replica," he said. "They are able to change various factors and see how something will help."
The surgeon has been using robots like the said this could make a huge difference when applied to surgery.
"If you are able to combine all of the data you can create millions of digital twins," he said. "If someone is in for an operation you can already develop a twin and the people who's job it is to operate can prepare using that."
Prof Soomro said considering the ethics of robotics and AI in surgery was "very, very important" – and he compared the technology to self driving cars.
"At the moment if an accident happens, that's the driver's fault," he said. Not the car's.
"These are big machines on the whole which we can use for minimally invasive surgery. They are like cars and the surgeon is like the driver."
He explained how at the moment the focus was on "ambient intelligence" like Amazon Alexas which could assist humans with information, and that more sci-fi kinds of robot able to react to stimuli and carry out procedures probably "won't be there for another 50 years".
Prof Soomro said it was vital to think of technology as a way to improve surgery, and that the most important thing was simple, robots or no robots: "What we need to look at it simply what's the best way to go – what kind of operation is the best one?"
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