High-precision robot gives Mater neurosurgeons cutting edge

A new robotic system which uses pinpoint computerised tracking to guide surgery is set to make spinal operations even safer for hundreds of Queensland patients. 

The very first ExcelsiusGPS system procedures in Queensland have been performed at Mater Private Hospital Brisbane – using GPS-like navigation and robotic control to fuse spinal bones together and end years of pain for each patient. 

More than 3,500 Queenslanders undergo spinal fusions each year to fix back problems and correct spinal deformities. 

Developments in keyhole surgery have reduced the risk of patients suffering serious complications, but Mater neurosurgeon Dr Martin Wood said the new ExcelsiusGPS system will take the risk to significantly below one per cent.     

“I’ve performed keyhole surgery for many years, but there is always an inaccuracy risk because you are operating freehand,” Dr Wood said. 

“This system utilises a robotic arm that doesn’t move and can monitor exactly where the patient’s anatomy is at all times.  

“That means that if the patient slips a bit on the bed, moves over, or gets nudged, it can see that there's an angular change and the robot will give you a red alert and stop you. 

“Obviously, complications in spinal surgery can be very serious, so new technology that can minimise those risks still further is a very positive and exciting development.”  

The ExcelsiusGPS is part of a fast-growing suite of surgical robotic systems now in use at Mater Private Brisbane that are changing the face of surgery for orthopaedic, neurology, gynae-oncology and urology specialists and their patients.  

Almost 500 robotic-assisted operations were performed at the hospital in the last 12 months. 

So far Dr Wood and his colleagues at the Brisbane Clinical Neuroscience Centre, based at Mater’s South Brisbane campus, have performed 32 successful operations on the ExcelsiusGPS system, assisting patients from across Queensland. 

Small business owner Paul Sickinger said he had suffered debilitating leg pain for a number of years before his “life changing” ExcelsiusGPS surgery at Mater Private Hospital Brisbane.  

“I won’t sugarcoat it – it was agonising. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy,” Mr Sickinger said.   

“It was like someone was hammering hundreds of nails in my leg at once.  

“Sleeping wasn’t really an option – it could take me three to four hours to get comfortable at night. 

“My anxiety dropped the moment Dr Wood said, ‘we’re going to fix this, we’re going to get this done’.” 

The 49-year-old had previously undergone surgery twice to address lumbar disc hernias in the same place, and while they offered him a reprieve, the pain unfortunately returned.  

“Unfortunately, he had another recurrence – a third bite of the same pain,” Dr Wood said.  

“And really in that circumstance the best option is to remove the disc entirely, decompress the nerve, take the pain away in his leg and then stabilise the segment with the instrumentation we put in place with the Excelsius GPS robot.” 

Now the father-of-three is determined to get his life back on track. 

“Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to go away for a couple of days,” Mr Sickinger said.  

“I couldn’t go for a walk on the beach with my family. That was pretty upsetting. It messed with the pain and everything. 

“I sucked it up and did it once, but I couldn’t do it the second time I had to sit on the balcony and watch them walk down the beach. 

“I’d love to be able to just go do those things and have the opportunity to do that again – it’s a small thing but I’d love to be able to do that again – and now I will.” 

Dr Wood said procedures on the ExcelsiusGPS system were as invasive as keyhole surgery, but resulted in less tissue damage, smaller incisions, shorter hospital stays and faster recoveries than non-keyhole, or ‘open’, spinal surgery. 

Patients who undergo ExcelsiusGPS-assisted keyhole surgery typically spend three days in hospital recovering from their surgery, compared to a seven-day stay after open surgery. 

“We started doing keyhole spine surgery here in 2007, but many other surgeons haven’t yet embraced less invasive spine surgery,” Dr Wood said. 

“There’s a huge learning curve when training in those techniques but the interface of this system is simple to use and the robot makes keyhole surgery much easier to perform. 

“I’m sure all of our spinal fusion procedures will be carried out using this system in the near future and that other surgeons will adopt similar technology.” 

Mater’s investment in the ExcelsiusGPS system was made possible by Mater Foundation and the John Waller Foundation.    

“It’s fantastic to see funds that have been donated by kind-hearted Queenslanders ending the pain of patients and literally transforming their lives,” said Andrew Thomas, Mater Foundation Chief Executive. 

Paul Darcy, Executive Director Mater Hospitals, said that the range and number of robotic-assisted surgeries in Australia is expected to grow rapidly in the next decade. 

“Mater is at the forefront of robotic-assisted surgery in Queensland because the technology has one purpose – to improve the care and treatment of our patients,” Mr Darcy said. 

“Less invasive and more accurate surgery means patients recover more quickly and their procedures are more effective.”  

Pictured: Dr Martin Wood.

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