Robotic technology is making the world of difference to patients at one of the North-East’s leading hospitals. PETER BARRON finds out more.

It’s hard to believe that 67-year-old Peter Walton has just undergone a knee replacement operation. Within four hours of the pioneering surgery, he is up and about at Darlington’s BMI Woodlands Hospital, starting his physiotherapy by walking upstairs, with a broad smile on his face.

“It’s absolutely unbelievable – better than I could have ever hoped it would be,” says Peter, a self-employed roofer from Wighill, near Wetherby.

Peter has helped the hospital reach a milestone, becoming the 50th patient to be operated on, using the state-of-the-art Stryker Mako robot.

The Darlington hospital started a year-long lease of the robotic technology last summer and Executive Director Debbie Dobbs hopes it will become a permanent feature, representing a £1m-plus vote of confidence in BMI Woodlands.

It is the only operational Mako robot between Edinburgh and Leeds and BMI Woodlands’ is becoming the hospital of choice for patients across the north of England who need total hip replacements, total knee replacements, and partial knee replacements.

“In many ways, the Mako robot is the jewel in our crown, helping us to raise the bar in terms of the services we can offer.” says Debbie. “Our aim is to always find ways to improve and this is another example of that.”

The robot was given the name “Woody” after a staff competition and Peter is just one patient who now counts him as a friend.

He had been having trouble with his knee ever since he tore ligaments playing football as a 32-year-old and reached the point where a replacement was the best option. Having carried out his own research, reading up about the technology available, and the reputation of surgeon James Webb, he opted for BMI Woodlands Hospital as a private patient.

“I don’t regret it one bit because the experience from the moment I arrived has been brilliant. The staff here can’t do enough for you and I’d recommend it to anyone,” he says.

THE BMI WOODLANDS CONSULTANTS

JAMES WEBB

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As a Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon who is a passionate advocate of making the most of new technology, James Webb has praised BMI Woodlands Hospital for investing in the Stryker Mako robot.

“The great thing about working at The Woodlands Hospital is that the management team are so open to new ideas, and that was the case with the Mako robot,” he says.

“It’s a very expensive piece of kit, so it’s a bold investment by the hospital, but there are very clear advantages. It’s reproducible, so the results are spot on every time; it’s incredibly accurate; and afterwards, you have a happier patient, in less pain, with a shorter recovery time.”

Mr Webb was born in Leamington Spa, in The Midlands, and wanted to go into medicine from being a teenager. He trained at Newcastle Medical School and was inspired to specialise in orthopaedics – particularly hip and knee replacements – while working under highly-respected consultant, Roger Checketts, at Gateshead’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital.

“Roger was the shining light in the North-East for orthopaedics and trauma surgery and I saw firsthand how he was transforming lives,” says Mr Webb, who carried out his first knee replacement under Mr Checkett’s guidance.

Mr Webb has gone on to work throughout the North-East and he met his wife, Helen, while she was working as a physiotherapist at James Cook University Hospital, in Middlesbrough. They have twin 11-year-old girls.

He recently completed a fellowship in Perth, Australia, concentrating on complex joint replacements, and computer-assisted joint replacement.

Now based mainly at BMI Woodlands Hospital, he is deriving huge satisfaction from seeing the excellent results produced by the advances in technology.

On Christmas Day, he was sent a video by a patient, showing himself walking around less than a week after a knee replacement operation. It was his way of thanking Mr Webb for “making my Christmas”.

“In every other aspect of life, such as manufacturing processes, everyone is moving to robots because of their greater reliability and accuracy, so it makes sense for hip and knee replacements to go in the same direction,” says Mr Webb.

He loves his adopted home of Teesside and describes Woodlands Hospital as “fantastic in all respects”.

“I always ask myself whether I would be happy being treated in that hospital? Is it clean and safe with well-trained staff and excellent facilities? The answer to all those questions is ‘yes’,” he says.

CRAIG WHITE

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As a keen sportsman, Consultant Trauma and Orthopaedic Surgeon Craig White has a special interest in helping young adults suffering from early onset of arthritis or injury and he says the use of robotic surgery at Woodlands Hospital is “making a huge difference”.

Mr White, who joined the expert team at the Darlington hospital in 2011, performs hip arthroscopy (keyhole surgery) and hip impingement surgery, using both open and arthroscopic techniques, realignment surgery and hip and knee replacements.

“With younger patients, it’s about coming up with the right plan to enable them to carry on cycling, running, swimming, riding, or whatever other sports they enjoy for a much longer period.

“The Mako robot helps to produce the right plan and execute it with greater confidence,” he says. “It’s taking the guesswork out of it, giving us much greater accuracy than ever before, so it’s great to see the hospital embracing this new technology.”

Mr White understands the importance of being able to continue to be active because he is a passionate sportsman in his spare time. He skis regularly, kite surfs and is also an Iron Man Marathon runner, an event comprising a 3.8k swim, a 180k bike ride, followed by a marathon. He’s already signed up for the Swaledale Marathon in June.

“If you take kite surfing for example, you can’t do it if you can’t move your hips, so being able to help younger patients carry on doing the sport they love gives me huge satisfaction,” he says.

Mr White also has the personal experience of seeing his father undergo a hip replacement operation at the age of 40, so he’s seen at first hand the progress that’s been made in surgical techniques and recovery time since then.

And with medical advancements continuing to be made, he is confident he is in the right place to develop his career.

“My family is fixed in the area and The Woodlands is a very well-run hospital, so there are no reasons to move,” he says. “The team at the hospital are extremely supportive of both patients and consultants, and passionate about providing a high quality of care. It makes it a great working environment.”

JONATHAN LOUGHEAD

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A new addition to the team of consultants at BMI Woodlands Hospital, Jonathan Loughead brings a wealth of experience with him in advanced surgical techniques.

As a Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon, he specialises in hip and knee surgery in all its forms, with particular attention on joint reconstruction.

Raised in Ballymoney, a small town in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, Mr Loughead fell in love with the North-East of England when he studied at Newcastle University, graduating in 1998.

He undertook specialist training in the Northern Deanery, and further fellowship training in London, Ontario, before taking up a consultant post at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Gateshead.

“I was either going to be an engineer or go into medicine, but I ended up picking a speciality in medicine that had the most engineering in it,” he says.

He opted for the medical route after being inspired by a surgeon called John Robb during work experience when he was 17. However, he still managed to “scratch the engineering itch” by gaining a master’s degree distinction in Applied Biomechanics at Strathclyde University in 2008.

Mr Loughead has become an expert in computer-guided surgery of the knee since 2008, using it exclusively over the past five years. He has also been published in computer navigation on hip replacement surgery, so moving on to working with the Stryker Mako robot was a logical next step.

“The evidence internationally and in the UK about the Stryker Mako is incredibly positive, with the length of time knee replacements last being massively better,” he says.

“What sets the Stryker device apart is that it is the only one on the market that has a track record. Other similar products are five years behind in terms of development and clinical evidence.”

Mr Loughead goes as far as to say that robotic assisted surgery “represents the biggest step forward in joint replacement surgery in the last 20 years”.

He is also delighted to have joined BMI Woodlands, saying: “The senior management team are incredibly forward-thinking and proactive, yet down to earth and approachable at the same time, while the hospital has excellent facilities.”

A surgeon inspired by his own challenges

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Akinwande Adedapo is a Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon, specialising in foot and ankle surgery for children and adults.

He believes his passion for this type of surgery was inspired by his own physical challenges because he was born with a disability.

“I think being lame in one leg as a child is probably where it all came from,” he says. “It gave me that desire to do whatever I can to help improve the quality of people’s lives, especially children. If you can do something to enable them to play with their friends, you should do it.”

Mr Adedapo grew up in Nigeria and graduated from Lagos Medical School in 1989 before moving to the West Indies to gain experience as a “house officer”, working in hospitals in Trinidad and Tobago.

“It was a great place to learn – when I wasn’t on call, I was on the beach!” he smiles.

But once he decided to become a doctor, Mr Adedapo’s ambition was always to be a surgeon. He, therefore, swapped the balmy beaches of the West Indies to fly to England in December 1992, initially working as a Senior House Officer at Bradford Royal Infirmary.

After a year, he began training as an Orthopaedic Surgeon at Leeds University, qualifying in 2000.

He now splits his time between The BMI Woodlands Hospital, in Darlington, and James Cook University Hospital in Middlesbrough.

Although he specialises in knee and ankle replacement, he also carries out a broad range of surgery, and he is delighted to be part of the expert team at The Woodlands.

“I can honestly say it is one of the best private hospitals in the region,” he says.

“It is the spirit of the place – they always act on any concerns you have about being able to deliver the best results for patients and that is very important to me as a surgeon.

“My work involves a lot of very complex foot and ankle cases, requiring great attention to detail, and the hospital provides the best equipment possible. It really is a great working environment.”