KANSAS CITY, KS (KCTV) -- New technology to improve outcomes in spine surgery has arrived in the Kansas City metro.

It’s called the Globus Excelsius GPS. The FDA approved the device in 2017, but it wasn’t used locally until The University of Kansas Health System bought a pair of the spine robots that they trained on and began using in surgeries in August of this year.

Chuck Scott, who lives in Shawnee, became the first patient to have the robot used for a surgery there.

His garage is filled with posters of all the places he and his wife have visited in their travels. He likes to throw in little jokes as he describes each spot.

“I have suggested to my wife that we either move or expand the garage, and she decided that neither one of those was a good idea,” he said, followed by a grin. “Travel, to me, is the elixir of life.”

But for the past year, he’s had a travel companion he could do without.

“Discomfort was a constant companion, and pain was an occasional but unwelcome visitor,” he remarked, describing the back pain he lived with for a year. It’s pain that sometimes woke him from sleep.

Kimberly Barnhart gets it.

“I have six grandchildren, and I’m the fun grandma,” she described proudly. “I’m the one that runs and swings and plays ball.”

She didn’t stop being the fun one, but she suffered.

“I’m tired of being in pain,” she bemoaned to KCTV5 when we met with her the day of her spinal surgery. She was suited up in a gown and was just an hour away from being sedated and wheeled into the operating room.”

Her surgery and Scott’s got guidance from a robot. It’s the only one of its kind in a 14-county area of the Kansas City metro.

The term “robot” can be misleading. It’s nothing as humanlike as robots in popular science fiction, like Star Wars’ R2D2 or Twiki from Buck Rogers or the robot Scott joked about listening for right before he went under anesthesia.

“Danger Will Robinson,” said Scott. “I didn’t hear it, so that was a relief.”

The Globus Excelsius GPS provides a precise path for drills and screws that go into the spine.

“Spine surgery is a very precise thing,” explained orthopedic surgeon Dr. Joshua Bunch. “So, we want to have the most accuracy that we can.”

The surgeons map out where they need to go weeks in advance. The day of surgery, the robotic arm positions the trajectory just so, allowing for all the tools to take the same path again and again, rather than finessing manually with each pass.

That has several benefits. First, the surgeons don’t have to take as many images on the day of the surgery to navigate, so there’s less exposure to radiation for them and their patients. Second, and what may matter most to patients, is that they can make a smaller incision. After all, getting to bone always means cutting through muscle.

“The smaller the incision, the less muscle trauma, the less pain they have, the quicker the recovery,” explained Dr. Brandon Carlson. He is one of the other spinal surgeons trained to use the device, along with Dr. Bunch at the Marc A. Asher Comprehensive Spine Center.

One benefit to quicker recovery is less time on opioids or narcotic painkillers post-surgery.

It also reduces the chance for error in a location where error can be disastrous. “One of the biggest hurdles in spine surgery is knowing exactly where you are and knowing where the important structures are, meaning the spinal cord and the nerves,” said Dr. Bunch.

The technology works a bit like GPS navigation, but more specifically it’s like motion capture techniques used in Hollywood where actors have suits with ball-shaped sensors attached to give natural movements to CGI characters.

Scott is intrigued by the science, but that’s not what really mattered to him.

“I was up and walking around the same day as my surgery,” he said. “That evening, I got up and walked around without assistance.”

He is now two months into his recovery. That means his next destination, the Holy Land in June of 2020, should be even more rewarding than the last.

Globus Medical is one of three companies that offer robotic navigation for spine surgery. The other two are Zimmer Biomet and Medtronic Mazor Robotics. The surgeons said they did extensive research before choosing the device they did, which they chose in part due to what they saw as its ability to adapt to additional uses as technology improves.

Articles in medical journals have questioned the cost of the technology, pointing to little improvement in accuracy (from 94.9% with standard techniques to 97.9% with robotic arms doing the body mapping). Dr. Carlson doesn’t dispute the numbers but argues even a small improvement matters, especially in the context of procedures that occur around the spinal cord and nerves.

“A low complication rate is great,” said Dr. Carlson. “Except when it happens to a patient, it doesn’t matter what the rate was. It happened to that patient and it’s that important.”

The surgeons said they doubt they’ll ever be replaced by robots.

“The key point is it’s robotic assistance,” noted Dr. Carlson. “The surgeon is not going out of the room.”

However, they firmly believe that investing in surgical robotics now will have them better prepared as the technology advances.

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