Surgery done by robots – once the stuff of science fiction – is now a reality, right here on the Sunshine Coast.
The multi-million-dollar orthopaedic Mako robot, which arrived at the Buderim Private Hospital in July this year, is now a valued member of the highly skilled orthopaedic surgical teams performing joint replacement operations on the Coast.
Dr Shane Blackmore, of Sunshine Coast Orthopaedic Group, and Dr Hamish Gray, of Sunshine Coast Joint Surgery, are two of the surgeons who have already performed joint replacement surgery using the Mako technology at Buderim.
The robotic technology allows surgeons to perform less-invasive procedures with more accuracy and can result in less pain and a faster recovery time for the patient.
The Mako is one of the latest in an increasing line of state-of-the-art robotic and artificial intelligence (AI) advances which have seen robots, avatars and other previously unimaginable technologies become an integral part of medical care and treatment in the region.
Another robotic marvel, the Da Vinci Xi surgical robotic system for selected gynaecology surgical patients, came to Buderim Private Hospital in June this year.
This robot is being used by surgeons such as obstetrician and gynaecologist Dr Benjamin Stokes for selected gynaecology surgical patients, including those requiring surgery for hysterectomies, endometriosis and uterine fibroids.
Dr Stokes said he was very proud to bring the technical marvels of robotic gynaecological surgery to women on the Sunshine Coast.
“This new technology gives surgeons better access, better vision and hopefully better outcomes for our patients,” he says.
The Da Vinci Xi surgical robotic system has been in use at Buderim since 2017 for prostate cancer patients, and since 2018 for selected general surgical patients, including those requiring hernia and bowel surgery.
Surgeons undergo specialist training for robotic surgery, which is an extension to laparoscopic (keyhole) surgery. The training includes simulation, attending training sessions interstate, and working alongside other surgeons experienced in robotic surgery. But robotics is only one form of technology now integrated into the operating theatre.
Hip and knee replacement surgeon and Sunshine Coast Orthopaedic Group founder Adjunct Professor Daevyd Rodda is a leading proponent of and expert in the Medacta MyKnee technology: a cutting-edge knee replacement system.
He explains that the system uses patient match technology to design a knee replacement that is based on a patient’s individual needs.
“We take some advanced imaging of the knee, whether it be a CT scan or an MRI scan, and that gives us very accurate 3D information about the knee,” A/Prof Rodda says.
“We then send that data electronically to a team of engineers in Switzerland, where the implants are made, and they will design the ideal size, shape and position of the knee replacement for that patient’s unique anatomy.
“Then, based on that plan, they will use a 3D printer to print customised instruments, which allow us to execute the plan extremely accurately. So, the information that the robot [such as the Mako] gets intra-operatively, we have done all that planning pre-operatively.
“All of these [technologies] have got the aim of improving outcomes of knee replacement in terms of implant placement and in terms of long-term results.”
It’s not only in the operating theatre, however, that advanced technology has established a presence.
Sunshine Coast University Hospital (SCUH) is home to another cutting-edge piece of technology: the VECTRA, which uses advanced 3D imaging to detect changes in skin lesions that can lead to melanoma and other skin cancers.
A second VECTRA, which arrived only two months ago, operates at SunLife Skin Cancer Care Centre private clinic at Buderim – the only one available privately in Southeast Queensland.
Primary care skin cancer doctor at Sunlife Dr Simon Hardy explains that the three-metre tall VECTRA works by using 92 ultra-high-definition cameras, which take photos of the entire body. It then takes seven minutes for a 3D avatar of the patient to be generated, from which a doctor can view the upper layer of skin, noticing any change in skin lesions.
Dr Hardy says the VECTRA is typically used for patients who have either had melanoma, or who are considered to be at high risk of developing melanoma. Because there is no radiation involved, the imaging can be used as often as is necessary. “There’s been various types of imaging available [in the past] with different capabilities and benefits,” Dr Hardy says.
“With this 3D model, the quality of the images has improved to a much more usable level.
“It’s going to change the way I think about moles and melanomas on those patients who are having it done.”
With such innovative technology at their fingertips, Sunshine Coast residents are less likely to need to travel to other major centres for treatment, as has been the case in the past.
Sunshine Coast Joint Surgery practice manager Dr Tanya Gray, who is also an emergency physician and paediatric emergency physician at SCUH, applauds the technological advances that have ushered in a new era for the region. She says that process was accelerated by the opening of SCUH in 2017.
She says that in the past, many patients with significant illnesses had to go to Brisbane.
Today, it’s a different story. One of the greatest advances in technology for medicine has been the advent of tele-health, she says, which has allowed patients to remain close to home.
Although patients with severe brain injury, spinal cord injury, and those needing cardiothoracic surgery still have to travel to Brisbane for treatment, most other illnesses can be treated locally.
The result for patients, she says, is overwhelmingly positive.
“We’re standing on our own two feet,” she says of medical care on the Coast.
“The impact [of technology] on our community has been huge.
“We have a lot of paediatric sub-specialties that we don’t have on the Sunshine Coast, but with access to tele-health, [patients come to SCUH as] outpatients and we tele-health the specialist in to a consultation. So, the technology has enabled people not to have to drive to Brisbane.
“Even things like interventional radiology and radiation techniques. There’s all these services that [became available] when SCUH opened, which stopped people going to Brisbane.
“I think that’s probably the big message – we’re not disrupting people’s lives anymore.”
In the paediatric emergency department at SCUH, AI technology is put to use daily in the form of virtual reality goggles, which Dr Gray says help patients to immerse themselves in a different world and draw their focus away from pain and trauma.
“The advantage of having the goggles is that we’re not giving [patients] drugs to sedate them because they’re in this world of whatever they choose.
“They are so absorbed in an AI world that I don’t need to give them drugs, which are risky.
“They’re now actually bringing in the goggles for palliative care.
“That’s the next step: to get more of these ultimate focus devices – distraction devices – because we know that if the brain is engaged in something that is utterly engaging, [patients] are not going to be scared.”
At SCUH, robots even deliver meals. Intelligent logistic robots take the meals from the kitchen to the wards, where staff then personally deliver them to the patients.
But perhaps one of the most revolutionary advances in technology is the way medical students are now able to learn anatomy.
No longer reliant solely on donated cadavers, medical students on the Coast can study human body visualisation in laboratories, where advanced technological versions simulate the
“So medical students no longer have to learn on deceased people’s anatomy,” Dr Gray says.
“And that’s a game-changer.”
MAPPING YOUNG BRAINS
The Sunshine Coast is home to ground-breaking medical research into using brain-mapping technology.
The University of the Sunshine Coast’s Thompson Institute, a hub for neuroscience research and teaching, is conducting the Longitudinal Adolescent Brain Study (LABS): a world-first, five-year research project aimed at better understanding adolescent brains.
The study uses four-monthly advanced neuroimaging and neurocognitive assessments to look at brain structure, functioning and chemistry, in order to track changes that occur in the brain from ages 12 to 17.
The research aims to help prevent the mental health issues young people can experience, with the hope of being able to predict problems before they occur.