Dr. Matt Varacallo

Penn Highlands Healthcare Director of Orthopedic Robotic Surgery Dr. Matthew Varacallo talks about how an orthopedic surgeon uses the Mako robot during a knee or hip replacement surgery.

Mako, the surgeon-guided robotic arm that’s now assisting hip and knee replacement surgeries at Penn Highlands DuBois and Penn Highlands Clearfield, was unveiled at both hospitals Thursday.

Penn Highlands Healthcare is proud to be the only health system in the region to offer surgeries assisted by Mako SmartRobotic, which facilitates greater precision and faster recovery for patients of hip and knee replacements than traditional joint replacement procedures, said Director of Orthopedic Robotic Surgery Dr. Matthew Varacallo.

“The way I like to describe it is we’re building on an even better program than we had in the past and really what the public should know is that Penn Highlands is at the point where we’re being considered one of the top leading institutions in the country for these types of treatments,” Varacallo said. “We’re offering services that aren’t even offered in Pittsburgh. What I try to emphasize to patients is that they don’t have to go somewhere else. Why would you go to Pittsburgh or State College where you’re not getting this unique multifaceted, comprehensive approach?”

Penn Highlands Clearfield Orthopedics Surgeon and Sports Medicine Dr. Mark Nartatez said the orthopedic surgeons are extremely excited to offer hip and knee replacements with assistance from the Mako robotic arm.

“Having cared for patients in this area for many years and being from the area, I know our community well,” said Nartatez. “As more individuals in our region are staying active well into their senior years, our goal at Penn Highlands Clearfield is to bring advancements to our hospital to help patients experience the most satisfaction and swiftest recovery possible.”

Mako is an innovative surgical solution for many people suffering from painful arthritis or degeneration of the knee or hip.

“The use of our joints over time can lead to pain and degeneration, and sometimes patients and their physicians decide that a joint replacement is the best plan of action to make them feel better,” Nartatez said.

Manufactured by Stryker, one of the world’s leading medical technology companies, Mako can lead to smaller incisions, less blood loss, preservation of healthy bone, and ultimately faster recovery than traditional hip and knee replacements.

“Mako has a 15- to 20-year proven track record,” said Varacallo. “I started using the technology and training in 2016. So I trained with it in Philadelphia.”

Varacallo said he pushed to bring the innovative technology to PHH because he believes in it.

“Penn Highlands was thankfully open enough to bring this technology to this area,” he said. “I’m tremendously blessed and humbled to be able to direct this program and take it into this next phase with the robotics.”

Both Varacallo and Nartatez noted that it’s important for patients to understand that their highly trained Penn Highlands surgeon is still the one performing the procedure.

“It’s not C-3PO doing the surgery,” joked Varacallo. “The robot is a standalone object that is wheeled into the field. And so, I’m standing there, I’m doing the surgery, I’m standing in the same exact position. Instead of having the saw in my hand, I’m guiding the robotic arm with a saw attachment on there. So I’m controlling the trigger. I’m doing everything that I was doing before, but the difference is I’m looking at a screen.”

“As the surgeon, we’re controlling the robot throughout the procedure, and the robot is following the surgeon’s maneuvers in real time,” said Nartatez. “An important part of what makes Mako different from other joint replacement procedures is the fact that a 3D scan of the patient’s anatomy is uploaded into the robot’s software so that it knows even the smallest intricacies of the patient’s unique anatomy.”

Mako does not perform surgery, make decisions on its own or move without the surgeon’s guidance. Mako SmartRoboticsTM also allows your surgeon to make adjustments to your plan during surgery as needed.

Mako is shown to speed patient recovery time following a hip or knee procedure.

“It also causes less blood loss and disturbance of healthy bone, and less swelling than traditional joint replacement,” said Nartatez. “Mako has the potential to decrease recovery time significantly after a hip, knee, or total knee replacement. The orthopedic surgeons have worked with our physical therapy team to develop the most ideal recovery protocols for patients following hip or knee replacement with Mako.”

While any patient can receive the robotic assisted replacement surgery, Varacallo said it is extremely beneficial for younger patients such as those in their 30s, 40s and 50s.

“And then also patients with significant deformity,” said Varacallo. “Patients who have, it’s called in medical terms, a dysplastic hip. And what that means, dysplastic means it didn’t form correctly. So over the years, it’s predisposed to early arthritis. But those patients with the dysplastic anatomy, it’s severely altered.”

Varacallo estimated that the robot has assisted in approximately eight to 10 surgeries so far in DuBois since PHH received the robot and he expects to perform about 40 more over the next couple of months.

The cost for each Mako robot is approximately $1.5 million, according to Penn Highlands.

PHH Clearfield President Rhonda Halsted said getting their own Mako at PHH Clearfield is a great example of how PHH is investing in the community’s hospital.

“Penn Highlands is here to deliver the most current technology possible to our patients, and this is one of the biggest advancements to come to Penn Highlands Clearfield since I’ve been here,” Halsted said.

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