Anniversary of Robotics | Epworth HealthCare

The year was 2003.

Guy Sebastian’s ‘Angels Brought Me Here’ was the biggest song of the year in Australia and Brisbane Lions notched up their ‘threepeat” of AFL Grand Final wins.

Epworth HealthCare Urologist Professor Tony Costello had just visited the USA, where he had observed what he believed would be a surgical revolution – robots being used to assist surgeons perform operations.

“I had seen a prototype of robotics in the US, developed by a start-up company at Stanford University,” Prof Costello said.

“The US Department of Defence and NASA collaborated to build a robot that would digitise a surgeon’s hand movements inside a body, through small ports. I was just blown away by the technology.”

Professor Costello returned to Australia and met with Denis Hogg, Group Chief Executive at the time.

“I talked to Denis who was a very forward-thinking CEO and a marvellous contributor to development in medicine at Epworth. Dennis, in his great wisdom, spent $3M and purchased one of the robots.”

The Da Vinci surgical robot purchased by Epworth was the first in the Asia-Pacific region.

People are initially surprised when they hear about robotic surgery Prof Costello said.

“Robotic surgery is about putting a supercomputer between the surgeon and the patient to digitise hand movement and use the camera system to view images in a body that are magnified 10-times in 3D. It is outstanding technology.”

“You still need the surgeon making all decisions, just like you need a pilot in the cockpit of a plane.”

The first robotic prostate cancer surgery in Australia was undertaken at Epworth Richmond, taking seven hours. As techniques improved, operating time was soon reduced to three hours. Now, it takes around 1.5 hours.

Prof Costello said it took a few years before surgeons were convinced that robots were the way of the future.

“It took me about four years to realise the train had well and truly left the station and we weren’t going back. Patients have voted for it. When they are told they can be out of hospital a day after surgery, using a robot or spend a week in hospital with traditional open surgery, it was a no brainer.”

The ground-breaking decision by Epworth to introduce robotic surgery to Australia meant surgeons came here from all over the world to learn.

“We trained 53 surgeons from the USA, UK, Ireland, Italy, Singapore, and Germany , three at a time for a year, and many of those surgeons went back home and became leaders of robotics in their countries.”

“20 years later, we now have ten different robotic systems in every surgical discipline including robotic guidance systems in orthopaedic surgery,” Prof Costello said.