The CITRIS principal investigator and clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology uses specially designed robots to conduct minimally invasive surgery and shares her expertise with colleagues across an ocean.
“It’s interesting for me to work with CITRIS because I’m working with the scientists who design the equipment that I use to take care of patients,” said Dr. Bahareh Nejad, a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology and the medical director of robotic surgery at the University of California, Davis, and a principal investigator (PI) at the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society and the Banatao Institute (CITRIS).
“It’s the two sides coming together — the engineering, software and AI side bridging the gap with the clinical application.”
Before establishing her career in California, Nejad received her bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Miami University and her M.D. from Northwestern University. She completed her obstetrics and gynecology residency at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine. At UC Davis Health, Nejad, a board-certified OB-GYN, sees patients for a variety of conditions, from labor and delivery to complicated issues that require pelvic and abdominal surgery.
Nejad is also an award-winning teacher and mentor who leads more than two dozen UC Davis surgeons in training residents and medical students on robotic-assisted surgery, procedures in which surgeons use specialized robotic systems to operate on patients.
The idea of having a machine operate on a human may initially sound nerve-wracking. However, with the current level of commercial medical technology, the machine never operates on a patient autonomously, outside of a surgeon’s control. And as Nejad notes, robotic surgery can be more reliable and less invasive than traditional surgery.
Traditional surgery can require large incisions to provide surgeons with sufficient room to maneuver, which means significant blood loss and recovery time for patients, as well as a risk of post-surgical infection.
In robotic-assisted surgery, the precision robotic tool only needs to make small ports, or tunnel-like openings, less than a centimeter long in the patient’s body. From there, a surgeon can direct the robot and complete the procedure by entering in and out of the ports. The surgeon benefits from a 360-degree range of motion, increased magnification and reduced tremor. The patient is often able to go home the same day due to the small incisions, with less pain, scarring and infection risk.
Robotic surgery is available for multiple specialities, including cardiothoracic and gastrointestinal operations, and UC Davis Health has established a national reputation as a leader in the field.
Nejad has extensive experience in fibroid removal, endometriosis treatment and various benign, or noncancerous, procedures for women of all ages. She is drawn to robotic surgery for gynecological conditions because of the benefits of minimally invasive procedures — and her commitment to advocate for women.
“I feel that women are an underserved population,” she said. “There’s a large advocacy role in obstetrics and gynecology, both in legislative arenas and even with basic medical needs for women.
“With minimally invasive surgery, we can get women back to their lives faster,” Nejad said. “Back to work, back to taking care of their homes, because we make very small incisions with less blood loss.”
Nejad’s relationship with CITRIS began when she was invited to speak alongside academic and industry associates at a 2018 CITRIS forum in Silicon Valley about medical robotics. The discussion opened the door to her involvement in the CITRIS Health research initiative.
In 2019, CITRIS Health received support from the Lingnan Foundation, a U.S.-based philanthropic organization with a mission to advance higher education in southern China, to collaborate with colleagues at the First Affiliated Hospital, Sun Yat-sen University (FAH-SYSU) in Guangzhou. According to David Lindeman, executive director of CITRIS Health, the FAH-SYSU group suggested they join forces on an international surgical robotics training program.
“We reached out to Dr. Nejad to see her interest,” said Lindeman, “and the rest is history.”
Nejad now serves as director of robotics for the international program, working alongside researchers and clinicians in the United States and China to develop and maintain a robotic surgery training curriculum for medical teams at FAH-SYSU and beyond. Fellow UC Davis professor and CITRIS Health co-Director Nicholas Anderson oversees a parallel track in health informatics as part of the robust collaboration.
“We all come together with the same ultimate goal of patient care, advancing science and sharing knowledge with our Chinese colleagues back and forth,” Nejad said.
Their efforts have seen significant success. In August, CITRIS Health received $2.6 million in funding from SYSU to advance the robotic surgery and health informatics programs, in which Nejad will continue to play a lead role. And in late September, CITRIS Health and FAH-SYSU organized the Pacific Rim Health Innovations Conference (PRHIC), which saw thousands of virtual attendees, with Nejad moderating a session on global advances in robotic surgery.
Nejad is celebrating exciting developments closer to home as well. Earlier this year, UC Davis broke ground on Aggie Square, an ambitious innovation district in Sacramento near the UC Davis Health campus. One of Aggie Square’s buildings will be predominantly dedicated to surgical training, according to Nejad.
Once the space is built, medical students, residents, fellows and international colleagues will be able to observe and perform robotic surgery on cadavers and other models, using the same equipment that they would encounter in the operating room. Industry partners will have room to showcase new technology. This facility, expected to be completed in 2024, will take Nejad and team “to the next level,” she said.
Meanwhile, her collaboration with CITRIS helps her to extend her reach and share her expertise across an ocean.
“She’s outstanding,” David Lindeman said. “Not only is she a consummate clinician and surgeon helping individuals in the U.S. and China, but she is an inspiring trainer and a leader in the field.”