Latrobe, Westmoreland hospitals gear up for next frontier in high-tech medicine

Sign up for one of our email newsletters.Updated 20 minutes ago The da Vinci robot-assisted surgery system is making minimally invasive, low-impact surgeries an option for more patients at Latrobe and Westmoreland Excela hospitals. But technology changes...

Latrobe, Westmoreland hospitals gear up for next frontier in high-tech medicine

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Updated 20 minutes ago

The da Vinci robot-assisted surgery system is making minimally invasive, low-impact surgeries an option for more patients at Latrobe and Westmoreland Excela hospitals.

But technology changes rapidly, and hospital officials hope their relatively early embrace of the da Vinci system will position both facilities to embrace the next frontier in high-tech medicine as well as the future generation of doctors who will practice it.

“There is already stuff on the horizon that is going to be making the current robots we use very rude and crude,” said Dr. Dan Clark, the surgeon who started Excela's robotics program back in 2008.

The da Vinci system has been in use at Latrobe Hospital since 2009 and at Westmoreland Hospital in Greensburg since 2015. Many procedures now being completed with the system previously required larger, open incisions.

With da Vinci, surgeons can perform cardiothoracic, urological, colorectal and gynecological surgeries — even complex hernia repair — by entering the body through several small incisions and operating delicate cameras and instruments tethered to the da Vinci's control module, Excela doctors and officials said.

Those advantages make da Vinci surgery popular with patients at Excela's facilities in Westmoreland County.

“The reality is, if you ask anybody, ‘Would you want a larger, open incision and a week in the hospital, or would you want minimally invasive surgery and to go home the next day and be able to drive in a few days,' nobody would chose the open option,” said Dr. Michael Szwerc, Excela's medical director of robotic surgery.

In January, surgeons at Latrobe Hospital completed their 2,500th da Vinci operation. Today, there are 18 credentialed surgeons in Westmoreland County performing increasingly sophisticated robotic procedures, and hospitals here are on track to reach 3,000 robot-assisted surgeries by the end of February, Excela spokeswoman Robin Jennings said.

The use of robotic-assisted surgery varies from hospital to hospital nationwide, depending on factors like physician training, equipment availability and which patients surgeons are most comfortable performing the procedure, according to the Mayo Clinic. Some institutions have a culture that prefers traditional open surgery, while others prefer minimally invasive surgery.

Szwerc said any procedures involving robots must be done with the same level of safety and ethical standards as traditional operations. They also must be as effective as open surgeries from a medical standpoint, if not better.

Procedures being done now with da Vinci weren't possible two years ago, Clark said, and the widespread acceptance of robot-assisted surgery likely will only grow as people, including surgeons, become more comfortable with the technology.

Clark has witnessed the evolutions of robots in medicine dating back to his residency at Fitzsimmons Army Medical Center in Boulder, Colo., where the Army and NASA were developing early versions of the technology.

Clark said autonomous robots could be performing surgery within 20 years. Hospitals that embrace the technology and employ doctors and surgeons who know how to use it will be best positioned for the future, he said.

“To recruit newer and younger surgeons in notable different specialties, you're going to have to have robots or you're going to be left behind, because robots are the future of surgery,” he said.

Michael Walton is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1290 or mwalton@tribweb.com.

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