Socially Distant Surgery: Doctor Uses 5G to Perform Remote Operation

(Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia / Annals of Internal Medicine)

(CN) — In the midst of a pandemic, millions of patients have become familiar with telemedicine. But a doctor in Italy just completed a procedure that could inspire the next wave of futuristic medicine: telesurgery.

In the first public demonstration of remote surgery over a 5G network, an expert otorhinolaryngologist in Milan used robotic technology and 5G to operate on a cadaver located nine miles away. The low latency and high bandwidth of 5G allowed the surgeon to operate as if he were in the operating room with the patient.

A research report published in Annals of Internal Medicine presented a feasibility demonstration where robotic telemicrosurgery was performed on the cadaver patient’s vocal cords with both sides of the system on wireless 5G networks. According to the authors, from Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia in Genoa, Italy, this demonstration showed the feasibility of remote surgery both in everyday and in emergency situations, such as those involving temporary field hospitals and the need for physical distancing between surgeons and patients (e.g. during Covid-19 pandemic, or after natural disasters). 

“This type of surgery has the potential for large-scale adoption, revolutionizing health care and surgical treatments around the globe,” according to the authors. 

The first telesurgery involving a human patient was done in 2001, when a surgeon in New York completed a laparoscopic cholecystectomy on a patient in Strasbourg, France. 

“This pioneering experience showed the potential of telehealth technology, but safe, reliable reproduction of this feat proved problematic for many years because of the limited availability of surgical robots and the lack of fast and reliable network connections,” write the authors of “Operating From a Distance: Robotic Vocal Cord 5G Telesurgery on a Cadaver.”

Now, surgical robots are becoming increasingly common and accepted in operating rooms, and the next generation of mobile networks is quickly being adopted, delivering ultrafast, stable, and reliable transmission of data. 

“This could affect the health care of hundreds of millions of patients; its estimated economic impact by 2035 is up to $3.5 trillion and 22 million jobs.” 

In a previous experience with 5G “telementoring,” doctors demonstrated that a remote expert surgeon could guide a surgery, giving instructions to the local surgeon on the patient side. 

“Here, we present a 5G ‘telesurgery’ experience, showing that the remote surgeon can directly operate on the patient using a surgical robotic system and appropriate teleoperation interfaces,” the authors wrote.

Using a robotic telemicrosurgery system that allowed direct surgical interaction with the patient, the Italian surgeon successfully performed a transoral laser microsurgery, a form of minimally invasive surgery used to remove tumors through the mouth.

“This 5G telesurgery experiment showed that the surgeon had effective control of the surgical robot, forceps, and laser and could confidently perform high-precision laser cordectomies on the cadaver’s vocal cords,” the study found.

Because both the surgeon and the robot operated over the mobile network, the authors conclude the experiment proves the feasibility of field hospitals in remote communities or disaster scenarios.

“Technology and medicine are evolving rapidly, with artificial intelligence, robotic assistance, and now 5G telecommunications set to play a critical role in enabling not only robotic telesurgery but also teleassistance and telementoring.”

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