OPINION | Northwest Health offers robotic-assisted lung biopsies for faster results

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related death in the U.S., with more than 150,000 people losing their lives to the disease each year. Arkansas is No. 4 on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's 2018 age-adjusted lung cancer death rate in the U.S.

Despite the steady rise in this statistic over the years, the number of people being screened for lung cancer falls far behind those screened for breast or colon cancers.

"Patients whose lung cancer is detected in the earliest stage have a much better chance of survival," said Dr. Jason Bailey, pulmonologist at Northwest Pulmonology -- Bentonville. "Conversely, survival rates for lung cancer are quite low when it's diagnosed in the later stages of the disease. Through CT screening, we can catch the tumor early and offer the patient more treatment options and more time for those treatments to work."

While most nodules (abnormal growth in the lung) may be benign, physicians may recommend a lung biopsy to confirm a diagnosis.

Bailey's clinic offers navigational bronchoscopy -- a robotic-assisted, minimally-invasive procedure that performs biopsies of the lung. Also known as shape-sensing navigation bronchoscopy, the technology uses fiber optics with 3D visualization to see inside the lungs and guide a catheter that automatically gives Bailey the path to reach nodules. This robotic technology is also beneficial for patients with bilateral nodules.

"With more than 1,500 miles of airways in the lung, it can be a matter of millimeters with nodules and where they're located," Bailey said. "Early-stage lung cancers (nodules) are small -- sometimes less than 2 centimeters -- and are difficult to reach. By the time a nodule is more than 2 centimeters, the patient has probably progressed in cancer development."

With the robotic-assisted procedure, results are usually back within seven days and occasionally 10 days for cytology, Bailey said. This is crucial when it comes to treating cancer because the longer time passes, the more risk the cancer can grow.

"Because the lung pathways are so narrow and complex, it's important to have the right tools to reach these small nodules hidden deep in these pathways," he said. "Our robotic surgical equipment gives us the optimal angles to target the best view of the nodule. And, because the catheter can be moved 180 degrees in all directions, it allows us better access for biopsies."

This means Bailey can reach all 18 segments of the lung. Once the pulmonary nodule is reached, the catheter locks in place and the biopsy needle passes through the catheter to reach the target and collect a sample.

"What I like about this technology is that it allows me to stay close to the patient during the procedure, so I'm able to monitor their airways the entire time while getting live views of the lung on the system's screen," Bailey said.

He also stresses the importance of getting screened to catch lung cancer early.

"Lung cancer has a 23% average five-year survival rate," Bailey continued. "If we can get the lung nodules when they're small and mostly in the outer periphery, we can catch it early before it spreads."

Who should be screened?

If you're at risk for developing lung cancer it's important to get screened. A low-dose CT scan uses an X-ray machine to scan the body with low doses of radiation to make detailed pictures of the lungs. If you or a loved one meets the guidelines below, you should speak to your doctor about a screening plan. Lung cancer frequently has no symptoms at all in the early stages, contributing to the higher mortality rate.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends yearly lung cancer screening with a low-dose CT scan for those at risk. According to the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, people who meet the following criteria may be screened:

You are age 50-77

You are asymptomatic -- do not have signs or symptoms of lung cancer

You are a current smoker or have quit smoking within the last 15 years

You have a tobacco smoking history of at least 20 "pack years" (an average of one pack -- 20 cigarettes -- a day, per day for 20 years)

You have a doctor's order for a low-dose CT scan

What are pack years?

A "20 pack-year smoking history" means you've smoked an average of:

One pack per day for 20 years, or

One-and-a-half packs of cigarettes a day for 13 years, or

Two packs per day for 10 years, or

Half a pack of cigarettes a day for 40 years.

For more information about this technology, visit NorthwestHealth.com/robotic-lung-biopsy or call Northwest Pulmonology -- Bentonville at (479) 553-3310.

About Northwest Health

Northwest Health is the largest health system in Northwest Arkansas with five hospitals: Northwest Medical Center in Bentonville, Northwest Medical Center in Springdale, Northwest Medical Center -- Willow Creek Women's Hospital, Siloam Springs Regional Hospital and Northwest Health Physicians' Specialty Hospital.