Why St. Peter’s surgeon says robot tech is replacing even otherwise-latest innovations in colorectal surgery

If two hands are better than one, Dr. Imran Saeed of St. Peter’s University Hospital is one-upping that.

With robotically assisted surgery machines, colorectal surgeons such as Saeed have three mechanical hands to work with today. It’s proving to be an effective alternative to open and laparoscopic operations, the longtime standards in the treatment for many colorectal conditions.

Recently adopted robot-aided surgeries improve recovery times, risks of complications and patient outcomes, Saeed said. But don’t just take his word for it: There’s a plethora of medical journal data to back it up, he said.

“So, at this point, we’ve 100% adapted to this robotic technology,” he said. “And I’m sure you’ll see the same trend at other hospitals where this is available.”

This approach is fast replacing the former “new kid on the block” in colorectal surgery, Saeed said. After it was determined laparoscopic surgery, a procedure involving camera-aided small incisions, could be used to treat colorectal malignancies without seeding the abdominal wall with cancer, it became a common alternative to more invasive open surgeries.

The downside, Saeed explained, is that it calls for highly specialized expertise. With cutting-edge robotic surgery — adopted for use in operating on pancreatic, lung, thyroid and other cancers — the learning curve isn’t nearly as high. That, combined with the reported benefits in terms of results, is expected to make this the new staple for colorectal surgeons.

Today’s newly minted surgeons are already being trained on these robotic tools from the get-go, Saeed said.  And it’s already popular among patients, too.

“The patients coming in to have the surgery done see for themselves that it’s a smoother process,” Saeed said. “They’ve maybe heard that this is a big surgery with a lot of things that can happen, but find that’s not the case here. More and more, we’re having people come here asking for this robotic surgery because they’ve known someone else that went through it with a better outcome.”

St. Peter’s has access to four different robots . That means surgeons across different cancer care disciplines aren’t fighting for time in the operating room, Dr. Saeed said.

It was once the case that these machines were seen as cost-prohibitive for many medical centers, he added. If the investment in million-dollar robots wasn’t enough of a deterrent, the associated annual maintenance costs were.

But, as more medical device companies have started producing these machines, that competition is seemingly leading to better products — and better rates for hospitals, Saeed said.

For St. Peter’s and other institutions, Saeed is excited about how these machines might be even further enhanced by artificial intelligence technologies and other advancements in the future.

“It’s amazing what they’re doing,” he said. “I can’t wait for what we’ll see over the next five years or so. I remember flip phones coming out; now we have these fabulous phones. In the same way, I see the sky as the limit for the technological advancement of (robotic surgery).”

Young people’s problems

By the time patients come to Dr. Imran Saeed of St. Peter’s University Hospital, they’ve already got sometimes significant disease that needs surgical treatment. Given that, there’s a growing number of patients he’d prefer never to have to see at all.

“What we’ve seen over the past 10 or so years is the incidence of colorectal cancer increasing significantly in young people,” he said. “In fact, this has become the most common cancer in men under 50 and the second-most in women.”

He’s hoping those cases start to be caught earlier, prior to patients requiring the surgical invention he’s expert in. Because, as of now, young people aren’t just experiencing this cancer at higher rates — they’re also getting later-stage diagnoses that prove more difficult to treat both surgically and through chemotherapy.

“We’re certainly seeing a lot of new young patients, so we’re putting more stress on getting screening done for them,” Saeed said. “We don’t want patients to wait until they’re experiencing weight loss or anemia. Really, with more subtle signs, such as anyone with blood from the rectum, should see a gastroenterologist or even a primary care doctor right away.”

The risks of ignoring warning signs are well-known to Saeed. One of his youngest patients was a 17-year-old who had bleeding for a year and a half that was speculated to just be hemorrhoids.

It was a sign instead of metastatic cancer.

“(So) we can’t simply say anymore, ‘Yeah, it could just be hemorrhoids,’” Saeed said.