CHICAGO — The onset of the pandemic forced many industries toward remote work for the first time. But the paradigm shift in how we work has also become a catalyst for how we live and even get health care. Telehealth has already seen a boom, but now, doctors are experimenting with the potential to perform complex medical procedures remotely.
Inside an operating room, 51-year-old Bob Miller was being prepped for a cerebral angiogram to investigate what may have led to a hemorrhagic stroke 10 weeks ago.
“Normally, what we would do is we would go in through an artery—generally in the wrist or in the in the leg—and manually access the arteries to the brain with a wire and then a catheter,” said Dr. Webster Crowley, associate professor of neurosurgery at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
Neurosurgeons like Crowley would normally be inside the room, but in this case, the procedure is performed using a robot and image guidance system that’s operated from an adjacent control room.
The remote aspect was something Miller’s wife Maureen Parotto had never heard of before.
“Initially, I didn't know that there was going to be the robotic, you know, aspect of it,” she said. “I was fine with it. I had thoracic surgery a year and a half ago, which I know was also robotic.”
Like many industries, the pandemic proved that productivity, and efficiency could be maintained even when workers weren’t inside traditional office spaces.
That shift has helped catalyze the idea that medical procedures much like telehealth could be performed from remote locations as well.
“My friends and I joke that perhaps we could get a machine installed in our houses and we can treat patients from our houses,” said Crowley.
Telesurgery might sound like science fiction, but high-speed network connectivity, increased bandwidth, and advances in precision robotics are making it a reality.
Crowley says these types of systems are still in their infancy. There are fewer than 10 programs in the country that have the robot for neurovascular care and four for cardiac care.
It’s still not approved for major surgeries and procedures like treating strokes or aneurysms yet, but diagnostic work like angiograms could be a preamble to more approvals to come.
“There have been studies where people have performed interventions for heart procedures from miles away,” said Crowley.
For Maureen Parotto and her husband, Bob Miller, the standard of care was the same as if the doctor was in the room.
“It's the combination of the technology, precision of that technology, and then, of course, the skill and expertise of the surgeon himself,” said Parotto.
Eventually, that could mean that a surgeon in Chicago could perform a robot-assisted surgery on a patient in Mexico, or during a pandemic, life-saving specialty care could be accessible from a socially distanced 2,000 miles away.
“If we can bring stroke care directly to patients rather than having them travel hours to get to a hospital that can provide that care, then that I think will make a really big difference,” said Crowley.
For now, doctors are beginning to show proof of concept for the future of telerobotic medicine.