Doctor uses 5G to direct surgery live from a stage at Mobile World Congress

When a team of doctors at Hospital Clinic Barcelona began removing a cancerous tumor from a patient’s colon on Wednesday, the surgeon overseeing the procedure was over three miles away.

In front of a packed auditorium at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona’s Fira Gran Via, the chief of the hospital’s gastrointestinal surgery unit used 5G technology to direct the operation via a live video link.

“If you cut these nerves, the patient will probably have urinary problems, sexual problems, many things,” Dr. Antonio Maria de Lacy told a rapt audience at the mobile tech industry event.

De Lacy then used a telestrator to highlight an area of the patient’s body with nerve-rich tissue. “You need to maintain this area,” he told his team, who could see the marking as they operated.

The hospital said it was the first time that doctors had used a 5G connection to communicate during surgery. De Lacy wasn’t performing the surgery himself, but he was able to provide instant advice and guidance.

De Lacy said that providing help in real time was only possible with a super-fast 5G connection.

“I am drawing with my hand on this screen, and at the same time on their screen,” he said. “Before 5G, we had to freeze the image to draw, but the surgeon is moving on and that is not ideal.”

5G can be 100 times faster than 4G, and the mobile networks have the potential to power self-driving cars, virtual reality, smart cities and networked robots. Health care is another area with major potential.

The speed and reliability of 5G means there is virtually zero latency, or lag time, between devices and the servers they communicate with, making it possible for De Lacy to draw on the screen in real time.

Around 143 million surgeries around the world do not happen each year because there aren’t enough expert surgeons. De Lacy said 5G technology could help bring that number down.

General surgery resident Romina Pena, who helped perform the surgery at the hospital, said she appreciated having De Lacy available throughout the procedure.

“Regardless of the level of experience of any surgeon, guidance is always welcome,” she said.

The audience inside the room was clearly stunned by the drama playing on the screen in high definition. 5G was a major theme at Mobile World Congress, but the surgery provided a powerful real-world example of its benefits.

“I was nervous and a bit worried,” said Gang Zhao of USA China Network Corp., who had never seen an operation before and wasn’t sure about looking inside a human body.

“It’s good that it was a [keyhole] surgery,” he said. “No blood.”

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