CBC News: Robotic arm helps with spinal surgery for the 1st time in Canada

Collage of two images: Dr. Sean Christie, a surgeon wearing scrubs and a white lab coat; and Susan Mullin wearing a tan blazer and black shirt

Originally published by CBC Nova Scotia. Pictured: Dr. Sean Christie (left) and Susan Mullin. (Credit: Mark Crosby/CBC).

With a few small, precise movements, Canadian medical history was made last week in Halifax as the first spinal robotic surgery was performed at the QEII Health Sciences Centre.

A robotic arm was used to place titanium screws and rods in three vertebrae. The surgery relieved pressure on nerves that were causing pain, said Dr. Sean Christie, the neurosurgeon who performed the surgery.

Dr. Christie said the procedure would still have been possible without the robotic arm, but it allows surgery to be faster and more precise. It can also mean less pain for patients, less impact on healthy tissues and a quicker recovery time.

"If you're trying to put a three- or five-millimetre screw into a trajectory and if you just move your hand that little bit, you can change the degree or angle," said Christie. "You want to have that accuracy and this enhances that substantially." 

Christie says the surgical team was very excited in the days leading up to the operation and were satisfied with how it went.

"The patient was even very excited about it and to be the first person to be done," said Christie.

Christie says he spoke to the patient Wednesday morning and her pain has resolved. He says she is excited to start rehab and get strong.

Spinal cord injuries is another area the QEII team is interested in researching, said Christie.

"One of the main things for spine injuries is to remove pressure off the spinal cord. So the concepts and the applications are very similar to what we're currently using the robot for. That's why I think it's a very short step to start using this technology on those sorts of injuries."

The $3-million initiative [will be] entirely funded by donors through the QEII Foundation. The robotic arm could bring more benefits to Nova Scotia's health-care system by taking people off future waitlists. 

Christie says after a traditional spinal operation, more stress can be added to other parts of the spine and that means a significant number of people need another surgery in the future. 

"Early reports, and what we're really hoping for with this technology, is that we can reduce that by more than 50 per cent of people coming back." 

For now, Christie says they are looking at getting more people through the operating room with the robotic arm.

"The spinal [surgical] robot is really going to help us demonstrate to the public the fact that we do have leading-edge care here in Halifax at the QEII Health Sciences Centre," said Susan Mullin, the president and CEO of the QEII Foundation. 

The spinal robotic surgery is another in a series of robot-assisted surgeries being used by Nova Scotia Health since 2019.

Mullin says she also hopes the new technology and growing robotics team will help attract doctors to the province.

The QEII's new spinal robot will be entirely donor-funded. To learn more about our $3-million fundraising efforts and how you can get involved, visit QE2Foundation.ca/spinalrobot.