Workforce and Training

07.12.18

New wave of technologies puts surgery ‘on verge of transformative change’

A new wave of technologies will transform surgery across the NHS with advances in digital technology and human biology improving the treatment of millions of patients, according to an independent commission.

The Commission on the Future of Surgery, established by the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS), has predicted new advances in genomics, vaccination, and non-surgical treatments will soon mean hundreds of thousands of patients no longer need to undergo cancer treatments.

With some advances only months away, the report prophesied that more patients will be diagnosed by blood samples instead of invasive biopsies, and patients will be able to undergo preventative operations earlier.

In the more distant future, stem-cell therapies and nano-surgery performed by micro-robots could allow surgeons to operate on individual cells in the body.

The commission has spent the last year investigating the advances that will “transform surgery” over the next 20 years with some of the country’s leading doctors, engineers, data experts, managers, and patients representatives.

Mr Richard Kerr, chair of the RCS’s commission, said: “We’re standing on the verge of transformative changes in surgery that have the potential to dramatically improve patients’ care, helping them to live healthier lives for longer.

“We are now moving from the era of freehand surgery to the digitalisation of surgery – where surgeons are supported by data, genomic analysis, and new tools such as robotics.

“From advances in minimally-invasive surgery and robotics, to genomics and virtual reality, this new wave of technologies will expand the surgeon’s toolkit exponentially. The changes are expected to affect every type of operation – this will be a watershed moment in surgery.”

The report published today says patients can confidently expect surgery to become much less invasive and more personalised, with surgeons able to deliver more predictable outcomes, faster recovery times, and a lower risk of harm.

Four areas of technological development likely to bring the greatest impact on how surgical care is delivered in the next two decades are highlighted in the report.

It says the focus is on robot-assisted surgery; imaging using virtual, mixed and augmented reality; big data; genomics; AI; and specialised interventions like transplants and stem-cell therapies.

Kerr, who wrote for NHE about these technological advances in surgery earlier this year, added: “Of course some of these technologies will remain science-fiction, with certain clinical challenges too big to overcome, and there may be other innovations we haven’t foreseen.”

Lord Darzi, the former health minister under Labour and an NHS surgeon, wrote for NHE in September about the progress and importance of innovation in the NHS.

Image credit - Rui Vieira/PA Wire/PA Images

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