Surgeons are retiring early because of back problems caused by modern surgical techniques, experts have warned.
Keyhole surgery, where an operation is carried out through a small hole in the patient’s body, has become increasingly common because it helps patients recover more quickly and has less pain, complications and scarring than conventional operations.
But in order to carry out the procedures through a tiny opening, surgeons often have to contort themselves into awkward positions for hours at a time.
Now a new report says one in five surgeons say they will have to retire early because they have developed back injuries from carrying out modern surgical techniques.
This could mean patients face even longer waits for operations, thanks to the loss of 4,500 senior doctors, the research suggests.
Three quarters of surgeons who regularly carry out the procedures have experienced back pain while doing their job and one in six have had to seek medical help for musculoskeletal injuries caused by their work, a survey of doctors by robo-surgery firm CMR Surgical found.
The survey questioned 462 surgeons who regularly performed keyhole surgery procedures in the United States and Europe, including more than 150 from the UK.
It found surgeons were most likely to suffer back, neck and shoulder injuries.
Women were more likely to be affected, thought to be because instruments tended to be designed for men and did not fit them properly. Men who were taller than 6’1” were also more likely to suffer.
A fifth of those polled said they will have to retire early as a result of the physical impact of operating on their health – equivalent to the NHS losing around 4,500 surgeons across England.
Consultant colorectal surgeon Jonathan Morton, of Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge, suffers back and neck pain when he spends hours carrying out intricate keyhole surgeries. The strain means he has previously needed physiotherapy to treat a work-induced neck injury.
While Mr Morton, 42, is determined to work for as long as possible, he fears a serious injury in future could potentially curtail his career. He said: “Over the last 20 years the operations have got longer because we’re now doing far more complex operations through keyhole surgery than ever before. So you’re more likely to be in an awkward position for greater lengths of time.
“On top of that, quite frequently we are having to operate in one direction while turning our head to the other direction to have a look at the screen. From an ergonomic point of view that’s difficult.
“At the time, it’s mainly musculoskeletal pain, but the concerning thing is what effect that has over decades. I know colleagues who had to retire early or needed surgery for slipped discs – that has been a wake-up call that it could happen to me at any time.”
It is the latest in a series of threats to the number of experienced doctors working in NHS.
Earlier this year, three quarters of hospital consultants revealed they had cut or would cut their hours to avoid being hit with large tax bills due to problems with their NHS pensions.
Others have left the NHS because of working pressures and young doctors’ reluctance to stay in the health service means one in 10 specialty postgraduate medical training posts are unfilled.
Now experts have said action needs to be taken to prevent injuries affecting surgeons’ ability to operate on patients.
Mark Slack, chief medical officer at CMR Surgical said patients could be put at risk by surgeons who continued to work with injuries, while waiting lists could be affected in both the short and long term when surgeons had to take time off.
He said: “If a surgeon gets a [repetitive strain] injury and they have to take five or six weeks off work to recover, that has an immediate impact on patients and waiting lists. Then if they have to retire early, or give up surgery and move to another area of medicine, that has even more of an impact.
“We should be doing everything we can to support surgeons to extend their surgical lives.”
Mr Slack said rates of pain and discomfort among surgeons could be reduced from 30 per cent to 5 per cent if they performed robot-assisted surgery instead.
Richard Kerr, Royal College of Surgeons Council Member, said: “Carrying out operations can be physically straining for surgeons, often requiring them to stand for long periods of time in awkward positions. It’s not surprising many surgeons report pain or discomfort as a consequence of their work.”
Mr Kerr, chairman of the Commission on the Future of Surgery, which has examined techniques to improve performance, said the use of robots could reduce injury levels among doctors, boost patient outcomes.
“The introduction of ergonomically designed surgical robots may go some way to alleviating this strain, and could even allow surgeons to extend their careers,” he said.
Professor Adrian Park, of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, in Maryland, United States, said: “Surgeons of all stripes are reporting musculoskeletal pain and injuries as a result of going to work every day. It is hard to imagine that those responsible for any other workplace, let alone one where the stakes are so high, such as in surgery, would tolerate rates of ‘worker injury’ such as are now being reported by surgeons.
“Surgeons need to be supported… to protect the future of the surgical workforce, for the benefit of surgeons, hospitals and most importantly, patients.”