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Diversity, equity official to leave GW in July
By Jenna Lee, Assistant News Editor • June 8, 2024

GW hospital doctor performs world’s first rectal surgery using medical robot system

Vincent Obias, chief in the division of colorectal surgery, completed the operation last month using a new robotics system designed specifically for this procedure.

A GW Hospital doctor became the first in the world to use a new type of medical robot to perform colon and rectal surgery.

Vincent Obias, chief in the division of colorectal surgery, completed the operation last month using a new robotics system designed specifically for this procedure. The technology allowed Obias to remove a cancerous lesion from a patient’s rectum without making an incision, making a once complicated and arduous surgery more convenient and less painful, hospital representatives said.

Obias, who is also an associate professor of surgery in the School of Medicine and Health Sciences, said in the past, doctors would have to cut open the patient through the abdomen to operate on the colon. The patient would stay in the hospital from two to 10 days following the procedure, he said.

Now, without any incisions, a patient can go home as early as the day of the surgery, he said. The first patient was sent home the day following his operation.

“Instead of having a surgery where you cut the colon out now you just have surgery that we can cut out these masses – complex masses – just transanally and they end up going home maybe the same day,” he said.

Medrobotics, a medical robotics company, redesigned its flexible robot that was previously used for head and neck surgeries specifically for colon procedures within the past year. When operating through the anus, the robot, which costs about $1 million, needed to be modeled to push air inside, giving doctors space to work, Tom Patzett, the vice president of marketing at Medrobotic, said.

Redesigning the robots took about 18 months and the Food and Drug Administration approved the technology in May. When Obias first heard about the original flexible robot, he spoke with company representatives about bringing the new version of the robot to GW Hospital for colorectal surgery, Patzett said.

Patzett, the vice president of marketing at Medrobotics, said the company chose GW Hospital and Obias to perform the first surgery using the new system because the hospital and Obias had proven to be dedicated to robotics technology.

Obias said he was the first in D.C. to use colorectal robotics technology, including a camera, at GW Hospital in 2009.

“We thought our robot would be in good hands with Dr. Obias,” Patzett said.

The Flex Robotics System will help GW Hospital stand out as a leader in robotics technology with an advantage over its competitors, while improving medical care for its patients, Obias said.

“The patients will have a lot more options than other hospitals and hopefully options that will be less painful and less morbid than other hospital systems,” he said.

Besides Obias, between three and four doctors have been trained to use flexible robots for surgery at GW Hospital, predominantly for head and neck operations, Obias said.

In the future, he hopes the robots will become smaller, more nimble and be able to reach deeper into the body for more types of colorectal surgeries and other procedures involving the anus, vagina and mouth.

Susan Griffiths, a GW Hospital spokeswoman, said the hospital wanted to utilize the updated robotic system to better the standard of care for patients and to continue upgrading the hospital’s technology.

“By offering this first-in-the-world option, GW Hospital is moving the standard of care higher for our community,” Griffiths said in an email.

GW Hospital was the sixth hospital to obtain the general Flex Robotics System, she said. The hospital performs about 70 colorectal surgeries a year. Doctors completed 77 such surgeries last year and are on track to complete 90 this year, she added.

Griffiths declined to provide the cost of the new system.

Peter Kazanzides, a research professor specializing in medical robotics at Johns Hopkins University, said in general using robots in medical surgeries can allow doctors to achieve better accuracy during the proceudre. But for colorectal surgery it’s more likely a matter of access.

The biggest complaints about medical robots in general are that procedure times are longer initially, and the technology is expensive, which some critics say would drive up health care costs, Kazanzides said.

“It might in the long-run save money so that’s not an obvious issue,” he said. “It could actually save money if it does a better job and has better recovery times.”

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