In Business Operation Robot

Listen to Operation Robot (02/12/2010)

The other day I watched something wonderful happen. A patient on an operating table was cured ... in front of my eyes.

This was not religion; it happened in an NHS hospital, Glenfield Hospital in Leicester. Brian Watts had been suffering from heart flutters for some time. Some days – he told me from his hospital bed before the operation – it was so bad he had to go back to bed.

Previous attempts to improve his condition had had little lasting impact, including the insertion of a pig's heart valve.

After he had been prepared, Brian was taken into the operating room, and I went in too, not all scrubbed up nor in surgical garb, but just as I had arrived that morning.

We sat in a partitioned off section of the room with an array of monitor screens in front of us. Brian – dosed with pain relievers but conscious – lay on a table a few yards away with blue–gowned medics looking after him.

Two large white machines hovered over him: a very manoeuvrable X–ray head feeding live images to a one of the screens in front of me, and at the other end a long robot arm ... the reason I was observing this operation with such close attention as well as an In Business microphone.

Irregular

Robot surgery is bringing revolutionary changes to the way healthcare works.

This robot–assisted operation for an irregular heartbeat was done for the first time anywhere in the world here in Leicester in April by the consultant cardiologist Dr Andre Ng.

This time he talked me through the procedure as he did it.

First Dr Ng and his team pushed two catheters through a keyhole incision in Brian's groin, and manoeuvred them up towards his heart, beating away on the X–ray screen.

Then the catheters pick up electric signals from the heart ... so that that on another screen in front of us you could see the way the tiny electric currents were conducted across the heart's surface, causing heart flutters.

The conductivity is normally blocked by non–conducting fibre at the base of the heart. But this was not happening; as a result, Brian's heart was short–circuiting.

Then, using a robot controller resembling an electric toothbrush, Dr Ng edged a third catheter with an "ablation" tip into place. Meanwhile the heart monitor kept blipping ... a v–shaped dip on the electronic graph, he called it a "chevron".

When these keyhole operations are done by hand, the specialists are liable to get big doses of radiation from operation after operation in the course of a day. They wear heavy lead jackets on top of the surgical scrubs to lessen the dangerous effects of the X–rays, very tiring after hours in the theatre.

The robot enables the specialist in charge to sit well away from the source of the radiation.

Satisfied that things were in position, Dr Ng activated the welding head of the third catheter: "cooking" is what he called it.

Dot by dot, the tiny burner tip moved across the surface of the heart. Each "cook" lasted about a minute, creating a barrier the electric current cannot cross.

As the procedure continued, the V–shaped blip on the heart monitor screen began to decrease. After a few minutes, it was gone altogether. Brian's heart flutter was cured.

Blank

Robot surgery is going to be applied to many other conditions. For example, when operating on prostate cancer it has been difficult to avoid severing tiny nerves close to the cancer, an action which can render the patient both impotent and incontinent.

But by carefully mapping the body round the prostate gland, the computer can blank out very detailed areas, creating a no–go zone for robot–assisted surgery so that nerves close to the tumour cannot be harmed.

It is important to stress that this is human–hand surgery assisted by robots.

The surgeon stays in charge, but the robot helps to achieve what is said to be a much more accurate and controlled result. Robots don't have shaky hands, for example, and if the surgeon happens to shake, than the robot eliminates the effect.

Very important work on the application of robots is now being carried out at the Hamlyn Centre for Robotic surgery at Imperial College London, and at the Sant'Anna School of Advanced Studies near Pisa in Italy.

There are big medical and business implications.

Linking small body sensors to mobile phones may enable doctors and hospitals to monitor patients from a distance, picking up tiny signals of troublesome conditions long before they present themselves as symptoms.

This may lead to healthcare becoming much more preventative and much less dominated by patient events which call for surgery or other large interventions. It will probably require healthcare to be organised in a very different way: and need very different assumptions from patients and practitioners,

Whatever happens, I will not quickly forget the day I saw a man cured in front of my eyes.

Listen to Operation Robot (02/12/2010)

Previous Programmes

Watch Your Language - Peter Day joins a group of enthusiasts determined to improve the language of business.

Keep it Local - As pubs struggle to survive, Peter Day travels through villages in Yorkshire and Cumbria to talk to local activists.

Space - Peter Day asks what happens next on the USA's journey into space.

German Pencils - Peter Day asks Faber-Castell and Staedtler how they both stay sharp ...

Building BRICS - Peter Day finds out about the BRICS - Brazil, Russia, Indonesia and China

Over A Barrel - Peter Day contemplates the turmoil in the Middle East and fears it will affect the price of oil

Reconstructing Capitalism - Peter Day hears all about the challenges to the way capitalism works.

All at Sea - Peter Day hears all about sea transport.

China Dispossessed - Peter Day hears about some of the problems caused by China's rush for prosperity.

Back on the Road - Alan Mulally tells Peter Day how he changed the way Ford works and how it is now back in the business of selling cars.

Asia Bling! - Peter Day ponders how the rise of the Asian comsumer will change business.

Euro on the Rocks - Peter Day asks what is the future for the Euro?

Bitter Pills - Peter Day looks at changing face of drug development.

Operation Robot - would you allow a robot to operate on you? Peter Day looks at robot-assisted surgery.

Growing Pains - Peter Day asks, what is the main component of growth?

After the Crunch - Government funding and regional development: the view from Newcastle.

Chips off the Old Block - Computing in the UK, past, present and future.

Hidden Depths - Graham Hawkes, DeepFlight and exploring the oceans.

Sociability - How social technology makes new business models possible.

Are CEOs Up to the Job? - Two thirds aren't according to Xinfu's Steve Tappin. Peter Day investigates.

In at the Start - Saeed Amidi and Silicon Valley

Power Play - Is the 'smart grid' the start of something big?

Now Wash Your Hands Please - How a simple idea can transform lives in the developing world

Coming Soon - What can the experience of previous financial crises tell us about the current one?

Ticking Over - Can the Isle of Man rejuvenate the business of watchmaking?

Not Just Silicon - what can Silicon Valley teach us about innovation?

Press under Pressure - what lies ahead for the world of newspaper publishing?

Remembering CK Prahalad - in a world of change and multiple opportunities, how does a company keep up?

Rwanda Rising - building a clean safe state where business can flourish.

Life Cycles - building businesses around the idea of new kinds of bikes.

Who Sets Our Standards - the business and social benefits of standardisation.

Ready to wear - the ethical issues of the international clothing industry.

Doing It Wrong - what's wrong with the way business works?

New Age - the business of aging.

Project Alcatraz - rehabilitating offenders in Venezuela.

Selling Salvation - Peter Drucker and the Salvation Army.

Let Me Entertain You - office parties and away days.

Brazil's Sugar Rush - Brazil.

Small Wonder - microfinance.

Unlimited Company - organizational models.

Credit Crunch - cash and credit.

Student Startups - student entrepreneurs.

Media Mayhem - changes in the newspaper industry.

Squeaky Clean - branding.

Battery Power - Bolivia.

Women's Work - women in the city.

Hell For Leather - John Timpson and Timpson's Shoes.

Learning Curve - organisational culture.

Let's Start a Bank - banking.

Goodbye to Intel - Craig Barrett and Intel.

Location Location - So?

Iceland feels the Heat - the credit crunch in Iceland.

The Cisco Kid - Mike Lynch and John Chambers.

Grand Design - business schools.

Power Drive - the car industry.

All New - innovation.

Europe on the edge - What is this thing called "Europe"?

For more programmes visit the In Business programme archive.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.