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Forging into the future of heart surgery with robotics

For decades‚ patients around the world have experienced the benefits of the University of Minnesota’s innovations in heart care. And just as the pioneering spirit of yesterday gave rise to lifesaving solutions such as the pacemaker and open-heart surgery‚ cardiovascular surgeons at the University today are advancing the field of robotic heart surgery.

Kenneth Liao, M.D., Ph.D.

Kenneth Liao, M.D., Ph.D., for example‚ performed Minnesota’s first robot-assisted coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) in 2003. Since then‚ he has performed more than 50 such procedures.

Robot-assisted surgery can offer several benefits over traditional “open” surgery. Using the robotic arms of the da Vinci® Surgical System‚ surgeons can manipulate surgical instruments with tremor-free movements. They direct the robot’s arms through two tiny incisions‚ avoiding the need to open the patient’s chest and separate the rib cage.

Not surprisingly‚ people who undergo robotic procedures typically have shorter hospital stays than those who have traditional open-heart procedures—three or four days compared with a week to 10 days with traditional surgery—and heal faster.

But to Liao‚ head of robotic and minimally invasive cardiac surgery at the University‚ there is always room for improvement. Surgeons and cardiologists are now working together on “hybrid” procedures for patients who have damage on both sides of their heart.

In these hybrid procedures‚ a surgeon performs robot-assisted CABG surgery—usually on the left side of the heart‚ which benefits most from CABG—and a cardiologist stents the arteries on the right side. “Before hybrid procedures‚ we would do both the left and right repair with open-chest surgery‚” says Liao. “That can be a difficult procedure to recover from‚ particularly for older patients.”

University heart experts are discovering other uses of the technology as well‚ including using the robot to place pacemaker leads in the left side of the heart‚ eliminating the need for open-heart surgery.

Today the University’s expertise in robotics is sought across the globe. “It’s exciting because the University of Minnesota has this culture of letting you do innovative things‚” Liao says. “That makes it a great place to work—and a great place to keep building on what we have done so far.”

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