Robot surgeon in SA

04 October 2013 - 03:42 By KATHARINE CHILD
MAGIC FINGERS: Sarel van der Walt, CEO of the Urology Hospital in Pretoria, with the Da Vinci robotic surgery system. It was bought and installed at a cost of R20-million.
MAGIC FINGERS: Sarel van der Walt, CEO of the Urology Hospital in Pretoria, with the Da Vinci robotic surgery system. It was bought and installed at a cost of R20-million.
Image: DANIEL BORN

A robot will operate on a man with prostate cancer on October 21 at the Urology Hospital in Pretoria.

A surgeon will guide the machine from a console in the operating theatre, but theoretically he could do it from the other side of the world.

The Da Vinci robotic surgery system for pelvic, abdominal and thoracic surgery cost just under R20-million.

According to the company that sells it, Earth Medical, it is the first surgical robot in South Africa.

Africa's first surgical robot arrived in Egypt just before the Arab Spring revolution. It has seldom been used .

Dr Lance Coetzee, a urologist at the hospital and the head of the Prostate Cancer Foundation, said he had been particularly sceptical about the utility of surgical robots.

"I thought it was very expensive technology and I could do a better job with my own two hands."

But Coetzee soon saw the benefits.

The great advantage of the robot is that it allows a surgeon to operate on the prostate gland without opening the patient's abdomen.

This results in less blood loss and a far quicker recovery time - two days in hospital as opposed to four to six weeks.

The machine has a camera that sends a magnified 3D picture of the patient's internal organs to the doctor, said Coetzee.

"The robot goes beyond the limit of the human hand. It goes beyond the limit of the human eye," said Thomas Dunbar, managing director of Earth Medical.

The hospital and Earth Medical have been negotiating with medical aid schemes to fund robotic surgery.

The Urology Hospital's chief financial officer, Richard Goodchild, said smaller medical aids were much readier to pay for robotic surgery.

He was still in discussions with bigger medical aids, which did not want to pay for the operation in full.

He said robotic surgery was about need, not greed: "It is not in a hospital's interest because we make money from [the time patients spend] in hospital and the machine will shorten the stay."

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