By Michelle Roberts
BBC News website health reporter
A multi-million pound project is turning Colchester General Hospital into one of the world's most important centres for keyhole surgery.
The new theatres contain the latest keyhole surgery equipment
Two new state-of-the-art laparoscopic operating theatres are already open.
Plans for an ambitious education unit should make it a centre of excellence for training and research.
Traditionally, laparoscopic surgery was used for simple procedures, such as hernia repairs. Increasingly, it is being used for more complex surgery.
Better for patients
Indeed, over the next few years experts envisage that the majority of all abdominal surgical procedures will be carried out using laparoscopic techniques.
Colchester General was one of the first hospitals in the country to carry out laparoscopic procedures routinely and today carries out more advanced keyhole surgery than anywhere else in the UK.
Professor Roger Motson, who has pioneered keyhole surgery at Colchester for the past 16 years, and his team perform more than 150 laparoscopic colorectal resections per year.
A recent survey of the Association of Coloproctology of Great Britain and Ireland suggested only six other surgeons in Great Britain and Ireland performed 30 or more of such bowel cancer keyhole operations per year.
Minimally invasive surgery has obvious advantages - it can mean smaller scars, reduced hospital stays and shorter recovery times.
Professor Motson said: "The advantages over traditional open surgery are immense.
"Patients suffer less pain and need to spend less time recovering in hospital.
"This in effect can cut hospital waiting times as many patients having routine keyhole surgery can often leave hospital much sooner than with a conventional open procedure."
Centre of excellence
The proposed new ICENI Centre, which should be finished within the next eight to nine months at a cost of £4million, will house lecture theatres, laboratories and other facilities to make the hospital a leading European training centre for keyhole surgery.
Mr Tan Arulampalam, one of the laparoscopic surgeons working at Colchester, said: "We have probably got the highest concentration of advanced laparoscopic surgeons in the country.
"We currently run about 10 courses a year to train nurses and other doctors in the UK, as well as being one of three European training centres. We are hoping to increase this to 20-25 courses a year."
The facilities mean that doctors abroad will be able to watch the operations being done in real time via video transmissions.
Colchester was also the first UK hospital to install an integrated laparoscopic operating theatre - where all the keyhole equipment a surgeon might need is readily at hand in one place.
Having such high-tech equipment has benefited patients by cutting operating times, meaning shorter waits, said Mr Arulampalam.
"For gallbladder operations, for example, we have been able to knock off about 15 to 20 minutes per operation.
"When you think that we do about 350 of those operations a year, that really stacks up in terms of time saved."
Hilary Whittaker, chief executive of the national Beating Bowel Cancer charity, said: "We are delighted about this centre. It has got the greatest concentration of laparoscopic expertise in the country there.
"For bowel cancer, the recovery is so much quicker with this type of surgery. They can get out of hospital quickly, get well and back to work. The outcome is extremely good."
She said that in the UK, about 35,500 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer each year.
About half of these will die because their cancer is not picked up and treated early enough.
About 90% of the deaths could be avoided by treatment such as surgery.