Robots and technology have played a major role in surgery for the past several years. As technology becomes more advanced, surgical robots are able to do more than we ever imagined.

Flex® Robotic System: The future of robotic surgery is here

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Robots and technology have played a major role in surgery for the past several years. As technology becomes more advanced, surgical robots are able to do more than we ever imagined. With their small, high-precision instruments, surgical robots improve precision in surgery by making it less invasive, which in turn reduces recovery time. These advancements are certainly reflected in the new Flex® Robotic system now being used by several Sentara Cancer Network surgeons at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital.

What is the Flex® Robotic System?

The device, made by Medrobotics, is unique in its flexible design. Unlike other robotic devices, like the commonly used da Vinci® Surgical System, the Flex® Robotic System features a flexible, tube-like arm rather than a rigid, straight scope. This flexibility allows the device to move along circuitous routes inside the body to reach places that would have formerly required much more invasive surgery to access.

Surgeons are able to insert the flexible scope, and then use a joystick to control it as it winds its way to the right spot inside the body. Once the device reaches its destination, the scope stiffens up so that the surgeon has a stable platform from which to control the surgical tools. An important part of the technology is an on-board HD system to give surgeons an enhanced view of the area on which they’re operating.

What types of surgeries can it be used for?

Surgeons at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital started using the Flex® Robotic System in December 2017. This new technology is being used for head and neck and colon surgeries. “The single flexible arm allows for easier access to the larynx through the patient’s mouth,” explains Daniel Karakla, MD, a head and neck surgeon at the Sentara EVMS Comprehensive Head and Neck Center. Head and neck surgeons at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital are using the Flex® Robotic System to perform surgeries on early stage laryngeal cancers, biopsies and resection of tongue base, and radical tonsillectomies for cancer of the tonsils.

Our surgeons are also using the technology for removal of lesions in the colon. “The advantages include better visibility and the ability to get to locations that are otherwise quite challenging to access,” says Marybeth Hughes, MD. Sentara and EVMS were the first health system south of Washington DC to use this technology for a colorectal surgery case. Future uses may include gynecologic procedures, like vaginal hysterectomies and other applications.

In addition, the HPV epidemic is increasing the number of patients who respond well to surgery, but have cancer hidden in the tongue base or tonsils. The Flex® Robotic System offers a surgical option that otherwise would not have been available to these patients.

Why is this robotic surgery better for patients?

When surgeons use the Flex® Robotic System, patients are the ones who truly benefit. Surgery done with the Flex® Robotic System means smaller (or even no) incisions and less risk of damaging healthy tissue. “This technology allows our patients to avoid more invasive, open surgeries,” says Dr. Karakla. “And that means less blood loss and a quicker recovery post-surgery.”

This new Flex® Robotic System adds a new level of precision for our surgeons. In robotic-assisted surgeries, a surgeon is always guiding the machine’s movements. While the device can go places a surgeon’s hands cannot easily reach, it is fully in the surgeon’s control at all times. This means for Sentara Cancer Network patients, more precise and advanced surgery is now available thanks to this new system coupled with our experienced surgeons.