Robot surgeons are helping thousands of women left in agony by the womb condition endometriosis.
The high-tech remote-controlled machines are being deployed by NHS Trusts to clear the backlog of women who missed out on vital operations during the Covid pandemic.
While the devices cost just under £2 million each, they slash the time it takes to perform the delicate surgery, and as they also work with pinpoint accuracy it means patients recover faster.
Doctors at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in West London have already treated more than 200 women this year, including 24 during a recent ‘super-surgery’ weekend of back-to-back procedures. Similar catch-up initiatives have taken place at other NHS centres, including Liverpool Women’s Hospital and Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals NHS Trust in Essex.
Natalie Meagan-Blake, 39, had robotic surgery at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital last month
She was one of the 1.5 million women in the UK that developed endometriosis
Endometriosis affects 1.5 million women in the UK and develops when tissue that would normally line the womb starts to grow in other parts of the body, such as the ovaries, bowel and bladder, even occasionally in the spine, lungs or brain. It behaves just like womb tissue, swelling and bleeding every month during a woman’s period, which is why it causes widespread pain.
The cause is unclear but the condition tends to run in families, suggesting a genetic link.
Many women with endometriosis endure extreme discomfort, heavy bleeding and can develop depression and anxiety, yet it takes an average of seven-and-a-half years to get a diagnosis, according to the charity Endometriosis UK, as doctors often assume the symptoms are normal period pains. Some sufferers even have to give up work due to the problem.
During the Covid pandemic, roughly 80 per cent of all NHS endometriosis-related appointments were cancelled, but robot-assisted surgery is helping to reduce the backlog that created.
The robots have four mechanical arms, each with a surgical instrument on the end. The surgeon, instead of being at the patient’s side, sits at a computer console nearby and controls the robot with a joystick-like device. Amer Raza, a robotic surgeon at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, said: ‘It’s revolutionising endometriosis treatment and could soon become the first-choice surgical treatment on the NHS.’
Jeffrey Ahmed, consultant gynaecologist at the hospital, added: ‘It takes about 60 per cent of the time needed for conventional surgery. We’re also saving about £1,300 per patient because there is less blood loss – so fewer blood transfusions – and patients get discharged sooner.’
Mild-to-moderate endometriosis can be treated with anti-inflammatory painkillers, such as ibuprofen, as well as various forms of medication used to suppress the release of oestrogen, which can promote tissue growth.
But more severe cases need surgery to remove the tissue.
This usually involves keyhole surgery, under general anaesthetic, using a fine probe that generates an electric current to produce heat – a treatment called diathermy – to precisely target the affected areas. While this is effective, it can also damage vital nerves that control feeling around the pelvis.
Natalie Meagan-Blake, 39, had robotic surgery at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital last month.
She had suffered heavy, prolonged and painful periods from the age of nine, and despite the fact that her mum had endometriosis, doctors insisted there was nothing wrong and told her to take over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol. As a result, she wasn’t diagnosed with endometriosis until her early 30s.
‘I used to regularly miss school and work because my periods were so extreme and lasted two weeks at a time,’ she said. ‘I was in excruciating pain.’
Since being diagnosed she has had four keyhole procedures in just six years. While the surgeries eased her suffering, each time the excess tissue would grow back within eight or nine months.
‘I feel totally different this time and have recovered much more quickly,’ says Natalie, a fitness centre duty manager from London.
‘I’m nowhere near as fatigued and I haven’t needed to take a single painkiller. It’s likely my endometriosis will return, but I’ll definitely be asking for robotic surgery again.’