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Cornerstone Robotics founder and Spirit of HK Awards 2022 nominee Samuel Au, with a drilling robot. Photo: Jonathan Wong

A robot in every Hong Kong hospital? One man’s vision to tackle surgeon shortfall

  • Professor nominated in innovation category of Hong Kong Spirit Awards for making a difference in the healthcare system
  • Researcher plans to put at least one affordable, safe and effective surgical robot in every hospital in the country

Professor Samuel Au Kwok-wai envisions a future powered by medical robots which can tackle the shortfall of surgeons in Hong Kong. And he intends to build them himself.

The researcher from the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) said he was concerned that the demand for surgeons’ services kept outstripping supply, not only locally but also in mainland China, with an ageing population and more elderly people needing surgery, while training in the field remained inadequate.

“It’s a nationwide problem,” Au noted, adding that it was this capacity challenge that motivated him to carry out research into medical robotics.

Founder of Cornerstone Robotics and Spirit of Hong Kong Awards 2022 nominee Samuel Au, with a CSR Robot, at his centre at the Science Park in Sha Tin. Photo: Jonathan Wong

The researcher said many academic studies and clinical trials showed that surgical robots, which could perform delicate and complex tasks and help less experienced surgeons hone their craft, might increase productivity and therefore resolve the bottleneck in the healthcare system.

But he pointed out that the high prices of imported state-of-the-art models could put off potential users, especially underfunded hospitals on the mainland.

“That prompted me and my team to reflect on whether we can do more for patients,” he said.

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In 2019, the researcher founded a start-up to develop a system aimed at facilitating wider practice of robotic surgery in cancer treatment. The start-up is called Cornerstone Robotics.

Au said his team attached importance to affordability, when developing safe and effective surgical robots.

“We designed about 90 per cent of the parts ourselves and had them manufactured on the mainland,” he said, explaining how he lowered production costs.

He said an increased capacity made possible by the availability of affordable surgical robots could help the healthcare system meet patient needs.

“It is satisfying to see our robots have an impact on patients’ quality of life,” Au said.

His efforts to make a difference in the healthcare system have earned him a nomination in this year’s Spirit of Hong Kong Awards.

The annual event, co-organised by the South China Morning Post and property developer Sino Group, honours the achievements of remarkable people whose endeavours may otherwise go unnoticed.

Professor Philip Chiu Wai-yan of CUHK’s medicine faculty recommended Au for the innovation award category, which recognises individuals behind breakthrough technologies or innovation that benefits society.

Au, a faculty member at Chinese University’s department of mechanical and automation engineering, said he always had a keen interest in building robots.

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When developing the robotic surgical system, he said it was important to identify clinical requirements and translate them into well-defined engineering criteria before working out a solution.

The researcher said he had bridged the gap by connecting the two professions.

Noting the potential for surgery automation, he said he would continue to improve products and keep them affordable.

“I hope there will be at least one surgical robot at every hospital,” Au said.