MINISTERS stand accused of falling behind the times over the introduction of a hi-tech treatment that could spare thousands of men the severe side-effects of prostate cancer surgery.
More than a decade after the American Da Vinci robot became widely available in Europe, there are dozens in English hospitals, but none in Scotland.
The robot is the latest advance in keyhole surgery. It has a 95% success rate in arresting prostate cancer. A major benefit of the delicate nerve-sparing procedure is that it reduces the risks of incontinence and impotence that are almost inevitable in conventional open surgery.
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About 3000 men in Scotland are diagnosed with prostate cancer every year and 900 die of it. At the last count there were more than 20,000 men in Scotland who were living with the disease.
Almost one-third of operations in the UK to remove the prostate are robot-assisted - but only in England where there are 33 machines. In Scotland, the choice is limited to open and laparoscopic surgery.
A Scottish surgeon, who did not wish to be named, told The Herald: "It is universally accepted by surgeons in this country that we should have the robotic technology. Its benefits for surgeons and patients are beyond doubt, but we are still muddled up in red tape."
Prostate Cancer UK, an independent campaigning group, agrees men should have the choice. Mikis Euripides, director of policy and strategy, said: "We believe all men should be able to make an informed choice about whether they wish to undergo robot-assisted surgery or not. We want robots - and surgeons who are trained to use them - to be available throughout the UK."
The organisation recently asked the Health Secretary, Alex Neil, for an update on the Government's plans to bring the robotic technology to Scotland.
In a written response, he said a group had been set up to develop a research proposal and to review clinical and cost-effectiveness. He added: "We very much expect this work to support the case to introduce robot-assisted surgery to NHS Scotland."
However, the surgeon who spoke to The Herald says: "These arguments about effectiveness took place in the United States and Europe 10 years ago, and now there are 400 Da Vinci robots all over Europe, and many more in the US. Why are we still talking about research?. We are lagging lamentably behind the times."
The installation cost of a Da Vinci robot is £1.5 million, with annual maintenance of £85,000 and instruments costing over £1000 per operation.