Virtual think tank at CSTAR helps identify Canada’s opportunities in robotic assisted interventions

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Many of Canada’s top academics, clinicians, as well as industry advancing medical robotics technology, gathered in London Ontario at CSTAR (Canadian Surgical Technologies & Advanced Robotics) to identify Canada’s strengths and future opportunities in the use of robotic assisted interventions and automation. For many, this event is a positive step forward in meeting the goals set out in the federal government’s innovation agenda. According to workshop participant Jack Smith from the Office of the National Science Advisor, “We see this area as of strategic importance to Canada as this could be a focus for Canadian innovation.”

In the last decade robotics and mechatronics have found their way into many medical applications used every day in the Canadian healthcare system. The introduction of minimally invasive robotic systems have shown tremendous potential for surgery. The goal in medical robotics is not to replace the surgeon by a robot, but to provide the surgeon with new treatment options to the benefit of the patient.

According to research, government and industry experts participating at this workshop, there is a clear indication that while this technology is still in its early stages, it will significantly impact the future of surgery. And there is also a strong commitment here to ensure that research carried out in this area, is done so collaboratively in Canada.

Bringing together a diverse group to discuss the future of robotics-assisted interventions required much more than just sitting around a table talking about the issues. CSTAR, Canada’s national centre for developing and testing the next generation of minimally invasive surgical and interventional technologies and techniques, including robotics, provided the ideal setting for a computer-mediated environment.

Assisted by a Group Decision Support System (GDSS), each of the participants had their own computer terminal from which they interacted with the group. The computers are networked so that each individual’s screen is private, but the information they enter is displayed anonymously on a public screen. Advantages of using the tool over a traditional workshop approach means better idea generation and alternative evaluation, full and equal participation by group members and automatic and complete documentation of all deliberations.

The workshop is part of a study being conducted by Precarn Incorporated to determine future technology and market trends. The study is co-sponsored by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) in support of its work in robotic applications in space medicine. Precarn has commissioned CSTAR together with Stryker Communications and Hickling Arthurs Low (HAL) Corporation, to undertake a study of robotics and automation in medical applications. According to Precarn’s Rick Schwartzburg, “This workshop method works well, as it helps to keep people focused on the task at hand.”

Participants spent the day tackling four questions: What are the major issues in robotics-assisted intervention? What are the most important areas for research and commercialization in robotics-assisted interventions? What are Canada’s strengths and opportunities in these areas? What should be the role of Canadian stakeholders: industry, academics, clinicians, government and Precarn in advancing robotics-assisted interventions?

For many, the key to the future success in this area of healthcare depends on a national strategy with strong support from government. Funding concerns could be minimized to a certain extent with further collaboration between industry and researchers to provide infrastructure and the tools necessary. CSTAR was cited as a perfect example of how an integrated approach is working to its advantage. According to Director Marlene J. Le Ber, “CSTAR is the first interdisciplinary research and training facility in the world to bring together practioners, students and researchers in surgery, engineering, imaging, robotics, information technology and business.”

However, the ability of the industry to successfully move new inventions and ideas forward into the global marketplace depends on bridging the gaps in the commercialization process. Dr. Brian Miller of American-based Intuitive Surgical agrees. “I now have a better understanding of the issues you are facing in this country and I hope that this knowledge will help me guide development within my company in terms of future collaborations.”

Jack Smith hopes this study will “provide an opportunity to raise the issue in a common framework and by having a more concerted approach, Canada can eventually become a top contender in the world.”

A report from Precarn on the workshop is due out in the spring.