Patients recover quicker, with less scarring and are less likely to be readmitted

Adopting robotic surgery could free up thousands of beds across the NHS, figures from pioneering trusts suggest. Surgeons were “crying out for robots”, senior doctors have said.

When compared with traditional open surgery, patients who are operated on by a robot recover more quickly, lose less blood and suffer less scarring, pain and infection, studies have shown. They are also less likely to be readmitted after surgery.

The machines also reduce the physical strain on surgeons as they operate, potentially extending how long they can work. They sit away from the patient at a special console, which they use to control surgical instruments.

Robots are used across a variety of surgical specialities, with procedures including hysterectomies and bowel cancer tumour removals.

At Milton Keynes hospital use of a surgical robot has freed up 450 bed days, according to figures shown to The Times.

Writing today in The Times Red Box, Richard Hammond, a senior NHS leader in Hertfordshire, said: “Surgeons at my hospital, and all over the country, are crying out for robots.”

He said that they had three robots, but many other hospitals had not taken on the machines and this was leading to inequalities both in “access to the best treatment and care for patients” and in “a hospital’s ability to reduce the surgical backlog brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic”.

At East and North Hertfordshire NHS Trust, using robotic surgery in gynaecology has on average reduced the length of stay by two days per patient. In urology, post-surgical use of intensive care beds has decreased.

Figures released by the NHS last week showed that people waiting for planned treatment rose to 7.2 million at the end of December, with over 406,000 waiting over a year.

Hammond said that as a radiographer he remembered using charity fundraising to buy a CT scanner in the 1990s. “At the time, CT scanners only existed in London or big teaching hospitals. The government eventually realised the huge potential these scanners had for improving diagnosis, treatment and care and launched a national programme to buy CT scanners.

“It is inevitable that robotic surgery will become as ubiquitous as CT and MRI scanners are today. We are starting to see this momentum in Wales, who have rolled out a number of Versius robots as part of a national drive to support equal access to innovation across the country.

“A national strategy for robotic surgery would be welcomed by the NHS, to support the service reduce backlogs, free up beds and reduce health inequalities across England.”

Speaking at a discussion arranged by CMR Surgical, who make Versius surgical robots, Professor Jared Torkington, who leads the Wales national robotics assisted surgery programme, said that widespread adoption could improve patient engagement with NHS services.

“The man and woman in the street ‘gets’ surgery. If we can use robotics to show people that your local hospital is absolutely at the forefront and this is why you should send your screening tests back, this is why you should see the doctor about your symptoms then we change the game,” he said.

An NHS spokeswoman said: “From Guy’s and St Thomas’ world first where staff carried out more robotic surgery in one day than ever before, to Maidstone’s state of the art microscope to more easily carry out complex ear surgery, the NHS is already using robotics across the country to tackle the Covid-19 backlog that has inevitably built up during the pandemic.

“Local NHS areas will continue to embrace the latest technologies to bring long waits down for patients and actually, it is thanks to the hard work of staff and new innovations that the NHS in England has already virtually eliminated two-year waits and is on track to meet the next milestone of the elective recovery plan.”