The Globe and Mail: Discovering the potential with Canada’s second orthopaedic surgical robot

Healthcare teams in an OR test-drive the new orthopaedic robot; the Globe and Mail's red logo is appears in the centre of the image as an overlay

Originally published by The Globe and Mail

QEII Foundation calls on donor community to fund leading-edge robotics technology and research

The technology behind knee and hip replacements has come a long way, and now experts at Nova Scotia Health’s QEII Health Sciences Centre are conducting cutting-edge research to understand the potential for robot-assisted surgery to enhance surgical outcomes and improve the quality of patients’ lives.

Robotic technology signals new era

As a leader in advanced, specialized health care, the QEII Health Sciences Centre secured Canada’s second orthopaedic robot to begin vital research for knee and hip surgeries. This project is only possible through the QEII Foundation, who are raising funds to meet the campaign goal of $2.5-million. Using the robot’s software, surgeons can plan their surgery with a level of precision that is unprecedented thanks to 3-D imaging. Much like using a GPS when driving a vehicle, the robotic arm helps guide the surgeon to make more precise cuts than the human hand is able – precision that provides data to refine surgical techniques in the future.

“As a surgeon, I can say we’ve done a remarkable job with hip and knee replacements over the years,” says Dr. Michael Dunbar, orthopaedic surgeon, professor of surgery and researcher at Nova Scotia Health’s QEII Health Sciences Centre in Halifax. Dr. Dunbar has been instrumental in developing protocols and procedures in anticipation of the arrival of the QEII’s first orthopaedic robot.

“A surgeon is likely better off having computer technology assist with surgeries to reduce the error rate over the long term,” he says. “This needs to be proven definitively and I think we have a major role in Halifax and internationally to be part of that equation.”

Dr. Dunbar says the Nova Scotia Health Innovation Hub has been instrumental in paving the way to bring the orthopaedic robot to the QEII Health Sciences Centre. The Health Innovation Hub brings together physicians and staff, patients, research scientists, funding bodies, private industry and community members to have a transformative impact on people’s lives and on the health-care system.

Dr. Gail Tomblin Murphy is the vice-president of research, innovation and discovery, and chief nurse executive at Nova Scotia Health, who developed the idea for a Health Innovation Hub to accelerate the transformation of health-care delivery through the seamless integration of research with innovative initiatives that provide a positive impact for patients and providers.

“Our Health Innovation Hub is instrumental in allowing us to spearhead world class innovation and research here in Nova Scotia, including the application of robotics technologies to optimize care and outcomes for patients and families. The Hub is also key to our ability as a province to be a magnet that attracts and retains bright minds and top talent, such as the surgical team who will be operating with this orthopaedic robot.”

Dr. Dunbar also credits the QEII Health Sciences Centre’s strong ties with Dalhousie University with being able to make this kind of research happen. “That’s how we got here; we’re known for being able to do good research and answer tough questions,” he says.

Asking the tough questions is the goal with this extraordinary undertaking. Experts at the QEII Health Sciences Centre don’t just want to acquire the orthopaedic robot; through research they hope to understand how it impacts individual experiences with hip and knee replacements before and after surgery.

Dr. Janie Wilson, professor and director of biomedical engineering at Dalhousie University and researcher at the QEII Health Sciences Centre, is a key part of the team searching for answers.

Dr. Wilson was on a leave from Dalhousie University in 2018 to help in building an innovative research program in orthopaedics at McMaster University in Hamilton. Her arrival there coincided with the acquisition of Canada’s first orthopaedic robot for joint replacement surgery, and she was able to see firsthand the potential impact that surgical robotics can have on the lives of orthopaedic patients through innovative approaches to surgery.

The native of Sydney, Cape Breton, is now happy to return home to Atlantic Canada to lead a biomedical engineering team seeking to understand the value and utility of the QEII’s robot when it comes to individual patient needs.

“We know that individual patients walk differently. They use their muscles differently to control the movement of their joints. It’s these differences that we’re studying in people with asymptomatic, early-stage and end-stage osteoarthritis to prescribe improved treatments for individual needs,” Dr. Wilson says. “We’re also looking at the loosening of the implant and how that can lead to failure. It’s all about understanding people’s differences so that we can enhance their surgical outcomes, reduce the need for further surgery and help them experience the quality of life they hope for.”

Dr. Wilson says the new orthopaedic robot made by Stryker is generating a lot of excitement. “I think what we’re seeing in Canada right now is that centres are becoming more innovative in their practices and are becoming much more comfortable with robotic technology in their operating rooms,” she says.

With robotic technology emerging as a new wave in health-care innovation, medical and health professionals and students from all over the world are gravitating toward the QEII and Dalhousie University. Dr. Wilson says she is not surprised. “We’re going to see students wanting to be educated in this technology; we’re getting out in front of that. This will be an essential part of their clinical life for decades to come,” she says.

Along with students, surgeons who have spent years doing hip and knee replacements using existing technology have the potential to expand their scope of practice. “What we’re building here is critical to recruiting and retaining the best and the brightest.”

Investing in the extraordinary

Learning the potential of orthopaedic robotic surgery to transform people’s lives has taken a team effort with donors at the heart of it all.

“It’s the generosity and vision of our donors that empowers the QEII Foundation to invest in the extraordinary so that surgeons, scientists and collaborative researchers can make major advances in how we deliver care,” says Susan Mullin, president and chief executive officer of the QEII Foundation.

Mullin says a $2.5-million fundraising campaign to complete the purchase of the robotic technology and support important research to take it to the next level is under way. “The campaign is led by campaign co-chairs and QEII Foundation board members, Donnie Clow and Michelle Awad, who are passionate about this project and are helping us to share the story with the community who stand to benefit from it the most,” she says. “Orthopaedic surgery is quality of life saving; it’s about people getting back to their day-to day activities without pain.”

Mullin says she hopes that people of all ages in communities across Atlantic Canada will be inspired to donate to the campaign knowing that they or their loved ones may benefit from the new technology and what researchers discover.

“People who live in our communities are going to come to expect this kind of robotic technology when they require knee or hip replacements. Our goal with this campaign is to make that possible.”

With financial support from all levels of the community, the QEII Foundation helps fund new technologies, medical research, innovation and professional education that contribute to life-changing moments experienced every day by patients and their loved ones at Nova Scotia Health’s QEII Health Sciences Centre. With nearly one million patient visits each year, the QEII is the major referral centre for specialized, complex care for Atlantic Canada and beyond. To learn more about this robotic technology or how you can contribute to this fully donor-funded initiative, go to QE2Foundation.ca/orthorobot.

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