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Robotic Telemedicine and the Emerging Practice of Surgery From Afar

a photo showing a human body being operated on using robotic arms beside a surgeon looking at a screen, thus giving us a picture of what the recent robotic heart surgery looked like

Imagine getting a surgical procedure done, and the physician doing the incision is a robot. Does that sound like science fiction? It actually isn’t. Thanks to advances in robotic telemedicine and a healthy dose of innovation, surgery performed with a flesh-and-blood surgeon nowhere near the patient is a reality. In fact, successful robot-assisted heart surgery was performed recently.

a cartoon of a robot who has performed heart surgery in hospital
With the recent successful robotic heart surgery done, robotic telemedicine is surely signaling a notable change for the future of health care! Let’s all look forward to what’s next!

Robot-assisted heart surgery is not necessarily new. In fact, the first percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI) surgery—a non-surgical procedure that makes use of a catheter—was performed in 2011. However, procedures like this one have naturally required the presence of the cardiologist in order to be successfully executed. Notably, there’s a new device that allows robotic heart surgery to be done while the physician oversees the procedure from many miles away. This type of robotic telemedicine looks to be signaling a notable change for the future of health care.

The Potential of Robotic Heart Surgery

The recently executed robotic heart surgery was actually a series of 5 PCI procedures performed by a cardiologist who was in India at the time of the surgery itself. Dr. Tejas Patel utilized a precision vascular robot designed by Corindus Vascular Robotics. Despite being 20 miles away, he was able to direct the robot effectively using a joystick and a video monitor. And to minimize risks that might include connectivity and latency issues, a hard-wired internet connection was utilized.

Notably, robotic telemedicine has several advantages. Specifically, the ability to perform various procedures via robotic telemedicine significantly increases overall access to care. Patients who reside in rural regions or who cannot locally access specialists gain new opportunities for better health care procedures. Likewise, robotic telemedicine tends to be less costly over time. Even physicians benefit from procedures in terms of convenience and potentially less exposure to x-ray radiation. All of these advantages support the excitement around these new robotic developments.

Robotic Telemedicine Companies on the Rise

The company responsible for the latest robotic heart surgery breakthrough is Corindus Vascular Technologies. Based in Waltham, Massachusetts, Corindus received FDA approval for the first vascular robotics device called CorPath GRX robot. In addition to being used for PCI procedures, the CorPath GRX has also been greenlit for peripheral vascular procedures as well. As a result, this device extends the scope of vascular robotic telemedicine opportunities for patients moving forward. More than likely, additional robotic telemedicine services will soon be offered through similar devices.

As expected, these advances have not gone unnoticed. Particularly, Siemens has recognized the potential for robotic telemedicine and similar procedures. As a result, Siemens recently purchased Corindus for $1.1 billion. Other investigators are pursuing even more radical devices that will facilitate robotic telemedicine. For example, MIT engineers are developing a worm-like robot to manage acute strokes. The robot can be inserted by trained personnel and can be monitored by remote stroke centers throughout the country. And because it’s guided by magnetics, physicians’ hands-on guidance is not required.

In terms of CorPath GRX, the device enhances performance—compared to sole physician abilities. The robot offers greater precision by providing sub-millimeter measurements while improving stent-positioning capabilities. Likewise, the robotic heart surgery device also extends benefits due to its enhanced ergonomic visualization of the anatomy. For those interested, Corindus will be showcasing the CorPath GRX at the 2019 Transcatheter Cardiovascular Therapeutics Conference in San Francisco.

Robotic Telemedicine Goes Beyond a Terrestrial Reach

Markedly, the first robotic telemedicine procedure was performed in 2001 by Professor Jacques Marescaux. Named “Operation Lindbergh”—the operation resulted in a successful minimally invasive cholecystectomy on a 68-year-old woman in France. Today, that has extended to robotic heart surgery. And tomorrow the sky is the limit—literally. Indeed, for years, NASA has been advancing robotics technology in this area for the evolving opportunities for occupation in space. Thus, the first robotic heart surgery is an undeniable reason to celebrate. Breakthroughs in this sphere showcase the promises that robotic telemedicine offers both the now and the future.

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