Doctors at a British hospital have carried out the first heart rhythm operation using a remote-controlled robot and say its success means patients could be treated by doctors in other cities, or even other countries.
Dr. Andre Ng, who performed the procedure on Wednesday, told Reuters it went very well and the patient's irregular heart rhythm was restored to normal within an hour.
"It exceeded our expectations and we achieved what we set out to in very good time," said Ng, a consultant cardiologist and electrophysiologist at Glenfield Hospital in Leicester, England.
Robotic surgery is becoming more common in wealthy nations and can be used on patients suffering from gynecological cancer, coronary artery disease, kidney cancer, and bladder cancer. Ng said he was the first doctor in the world to carry out this type of remote-controlled operation on a human patient using a system called a Remote Catheter Manipulation System.
The device was developed by the U.S. company Catheter Robotics Inc, which says it hopes remote operations may be carried out on patients in future all over the world.
The procedure carried out by Ng involved inserting thin wires called catheters into blood vessels at the top of the groin and then threading them up into the chambers of the heart.
Electrodes on the catheters record and stimulate different regions of the heart to help the doctor identify the cause of the heart rhythm problem, which usually involves an abnormality in the electrical wiring system of the heart.
Once the area is identified, one of the catheters is placed at the right location to ablate, or burn, the tissue to cure the problem. Catheter ablation has been developed and used over the past two decades effectively in many patients suffering palpitations due to heart rhythm disturbances.
Despite being outside the operating room during the procedure, Ng said he felt in "complete control" and could see and speak to other medical staff who were beside the patient.
The main advantage is that the doctor doesn't have to wear heavy radiation shields such as lead aprons, which are normally required in the operating room because X-rays are used to show what is going on inside the patient.
Long and complex operations can mean the doctor becomes tired and less able to concentrate properly, and also mean doctors risk high levels of radiation exposure.
"Because I was sitting down in a relaxed and controlled environment and not having to wear a heavy lead coat, it was actually a very pleasurable experience," Ng said.
The operation, on a 70-year-old British man who had been suffering from an atrial heart flutter, was an initial test of the safety and efficacy of the system on humans.
Ng said he could see the remote-controlled robotic arm being used in more far off situations in the future.
"I think it would certainly be possible in future to do this from another city, or further away — all that's required is a reliable link between your remote controller, where the operator is, and the robotic arm, where the patient is," he said. "If there is a reliable enough link, then you could do it from any location in the world."