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Surgeons pioneer 'hands free' technology
Hermes in action
The new techniques could revolutionise operating theatres
Pioneering surgery using computer equipment operated by voice commands is being performed for the first time in Britain.

Surgeons using the system can alter lighting, apply suction, cut tendons and slice tissue by issuing instructions through a headset.

A computer using voice recognition feeds the commands to remote controlled keyhole surgical instruments.

The system, developed in the United States, is being used for the first time in the UK on Wednesday.

Orthopaedic surgeons Neil Thomas and John Britton will demonstrate the technology in a series of shoulder and knee operations at North Hampshire Hospital, Basingstoke.

'Reduces tissue damage'

Hermes could free up nurses for other work
The system, called Hermes, was developed by the Californian medical equipment company Stryker Corporation.

It can be used for many types of surgery, ranging from straightforward joint operations to complex heart bypasses and nerve repairs.

The technology is said to reduce tissue damage and cut the time taken to complete most operations by up to 15%.

In the US, 300 operating theatres built around Hermes have been established, with voice activation used for every piece of equipment, including telephones, operating tables and printers.

The British version of Hermes is confined to voice-operated lighting and video, but will include surgical instruments by Christmas.

Voice sensitive

Mr Neil Thomas
Mr Neil Thomas is using the new equipment
Surgeons, who watch a digital-quality video of the procedure on a monitor screen, guide instruments into position while speaking commands via a computer programmed to recognise his voice alone.

Mr Thomas said: "Whilst operating I wear a headset which connects me to the computer.

"This is voice sensitive and allows my voice to activate the surgical instruments such as the light, camera and image capture during the operation. The view of the joint during the operation is extremely clear.

"Hermes allows superb opportunities for teaching orthopaedic surgeons and we hope in the near future to be linked for videolink operating conferences."

Voice commands must be spoken correctly. To increase illumination of the operating site the surgeon utters the words: "Hermes, lights up".

'Absolutely reliable'

Similar commands operate precision cutting and filing tools, such as "Hermes, shaver, oscillate".

Chris Symonds, UK marketing manager for Stryker Corporation, said: "Currently if a surgeon wants, for instance, to adjust the lighting he has to ask an assistant to do it, or stop what he is doing to alter it himself. With this system he simply speaks and Hermes responds.

"It's absolutely reliable. We wouldn't be allowed to bring a product like this to market unless it was fully approved and tested. It's not voice recognition like you might have on your computer.

"Hermes only responds to 100 commands, listening to every sound and filtering out what it wants to hear. It's very sophisticated."

He said the equipment at Basingstoke cost around 47,000. A full system would be considerably more, but would lead to long term savings.

BBC News' Navdip Dhariwal reports on the operating theatre of the future
BBC News' Robert Hall: This is only the beginning
See also:

16 Jun 99 | Health
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31 Oct 99 | N Ireland
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