Hermes operating system now also listens to "his British master's voice"

Basingstoke 03 November 1999For the first time, pioneering surgery using computer equipment operated by voice commands has been performed in the United Kingdom. Surgeons at North Hampshire Hospital in Basingstoke utilised the Hermes system, a sophisticated control centre to monitor a network of surgical tools, in a series of shoulder and knee operations. The doctors were able to alter lighting, apply suction, cut tendons and slice tissue by issuing instructions through a headset.


The Hermes system has been developed in the United States by Stryker Corporation, a Californian medical equipment manufacturer. The system is based on a computer which applies voice recognition to feed the surgeon's commands to remote controlled keyhole surgical instruments. The technology can be used for various types of surgery, ranging from relatively straightforward joint operations to complex heart bypasses, as well as nerve repairs. Voice-controlled surgery has the potential to reduce tissue damage and minimise the time taken to carry out most operations by up to 15%.

In the United States, 300 operating theatres built around Hermes have been established to date, with voice activation used for every piece of equipment, including telephones, operating tables and printers. In the United Kingdom, the ground-breaking technology has been demonstrated by the orthopaedic surgeons, Neil Thomas and John Britton, at the North Hampshire Hospital. The British version of Hermes is limited to voice-operated lighting and video, but will include surgical instruments by the end of 1999.

Hermes allows Dr. Thomas and Dr. Britton to watch a digital-quality video of the procedure on a monitor screen. The instruments are guided into position while the surgeons are speaking commands through a computer which is programmed to recognise their voice alone. Dr. Thomas explained how the headset is connected to the computer during the surgical intervention. This device is voice sensitive and thus enables the surgeon's voice to activate the surgical instruments including light, camera and image capture, while the operation is being performed. The view of the joint during the operation is extremely clear.

It is of vital importance that the voice commands are spoken correctly. To increase illumination of the operating site, the surgeon for example has to utter the words: "Hermes, lights up". Similar commands are used to operate precision cutting and filing tools, such as "Hermes, shaver, oscillate". 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, as Chris Symonds, UK marketing manager for Stryker Corporation, states.

The Hermes system is absolutely reliable. Stryker wouldn't be allowed to bring a product like this to market unless it was fully approved and tested. It is not at all similar to voice recognition on a personal computer, as Mr. Chris Symonds assures. Hermes only responds to 100 commands, listening to every sound and filtering out what it wants to hear. In this respect, it is very sophisticated.

In addition, Dr. Thomas stressed the training abilities of the Hermes system that might be used as a superb tool in the teaching of orthopaedic surgeons. In the near future, the surgical staff at North Hampshire Hospital therefore hopes to get a connection for videolink operating conferences. Mr. Symonds estimates that the equipment at Basingstoke has cost around £47,000. A full system would be considerably more expensive, but alternatively would lead to long term savings.

You can find more news and technical details concerning the Hermes voice-controlled operating system in the formerly published VMW articles New patent to protect robotically enhanced surgery in the operating theatre and Voice-controlled surgical robot assistance in minimally invasive heart surgery procedures.

Leslie Versweyveld

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