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Dalek doctors

Tom Feilden | 12:40 UK time, Thursday, 21 August 2008


A fascinating discussion about the use of robots in medicine on the programme this morning. I'm not sure how you'd feel being quizzed about your health by a miniature Dalek at the foot of your bed, but Lord Winston clearly didn't like the idea.

The debate was sparked by a new TV series about the use of technology in medicine that the celebrated fertility expert is presenting - you can see part one of "SuperDoctors" on BBC1 at 9 o'clock tonight.

Lord Winston is pretty dismissive of consultant surgeon (and health minister) Ara Darzi's use of what amounts to a glorified video-conferencing machine to conduct his ward rounds. Lord Darzi's justification for using the robot is the enormous amount of time it saves him as he juggles meetings and consultations across a number of hospitals.

You can see how the idea might help to bring medical expertise to even the most remote location, but I have to say I have a lot of sympathy for Lord Winston's point; that medicine is about more than cold biological facts or efficiency. Certainly the patient who was the subject of this consultation - a fiesty old Irish woman - seemed less than impressed.

Even more interesting is the use of robotics to enhance human performance in the operating theatre. Lord Winston travelled to Canada to watch a robot perform brain surgery, and to Leeds where consultant paediatrician Azad Najmoldin was preparing to operate on a one year old boy. Azad Najmoldin is an experienced surgeon who has performed thousands of similar operations "by hand". So why Lord Winston wanted to know was he abandoning a proven and successful technique to experiment with a robot he had only used 8 times? Didn't that put the patient at greater risk?

The argument seems to go to the heart of what medical progress is all about. While the robots in use today may not be better than an experienced surgeon they have enormous potential. But if that potential is to be realised it has to be developed in the operating theatre. In this case, where Azad Najmoldin felt he was in control of the procedure and could take over manually at any point, he clearly felt any additional risk was manageable and worth it to take the technique forward.

Fascinating stuff, and well worth watching.

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