There is a world map with hundreds of different coloured pins – spread across every continent and the majority of countries – hanging on the wall of the Department of Neurosurgery at the Helsinki University Central Hospital (HUS). Each pin marks a fact-finding visit to the department by surgeons or health officials from other countries.
“Hospitals around the world are interested in how we do neurosurgery in Helsinki. Every year more than a hundred foreign neurosurgeons come here to learn the latest methods in microneurosurgery,” says Aki Laakso, MD, PhD, Associate Professor, who is one of Finland’s leading neurosurgeons and has worked at HUS since 2004.
Laakso currently heads the department’s research and development activities alongside his clinical work, specializing in cerebrovascular, epilepsy and brain tumour surgery, including the removal of cancerous gliomas.
Wide-ranging expertise and research
HUS is one of largest hospitals in Europe, treating over half a million patients yearly. It is internationally recognised for the quality of its treatment and the Department of Neurosurgery can take on the most demanding cases.
“As part of a major hospital, we have all the required specialist services available for neurology and neuro-oncology, so that the treatment can be tailored to the needs of each patient,” says Laakso.
HUS’ collaborative research programmes keep it at the forefront of new developments in cancer diagnosis and treatment. For example, Finnish universities and specialists have developed the technology for navigated transcranial magnetic stimulation, a non-invasive pre-surgery procedure that locates the motor and speech areas of the patient’s brain more accurately than ever before, and which also has therapeutic applications.
Glioma surgery requires skill and advanced technology
Successful glioma surgery requires highly accurate imaging and diagnostics expertise as well as delicate surgical precision, based on years of experience working with a surgical microscope at high magnification. A complex glioma case can require a full day of surgery. During an operation Laakso is guided by data from a motor tract imaging and continuous electrical stimulation which he can see in the eyepiece of the surgical microscope.
“The glioma penetrates deep into the brain and grows into the normal brain tissue, so the goal is to remove as much of it as possible while minimizing damage to the surrounding healthy tissue. It is challenging because this boundary is always overlapping,” Laakso explains.
Part of a surgeon’s professionalism is also the ability to recognise when the patient’s interests are better served by non-surgical treatment.
“Each case is unique, and it is my task to weigh the risks and benefits of surgical intervention with the possible long-term impact on the patient’s quality of life. Sometimes it makes sense to only take a tissue sample for further analysis or for the patient to get radiation therapy and/or chemotherapeutic drugs, which are also often given to post-operative patients.”
Trusted cancer expertise in Helsinki
According to Laakso, Finland is a very reliable place for cancer diagnosis, a second opinion or an in-depth treatment evaluation because patients receive an honest assessment that is not biased by financial incentives. The same applies when estimating the cost of cancer treatment.
“Finland has a well-functioning society and a healthcare system where patients can trust the officials and experts. International patients can be confident of receiving the best care and that the treatment proceeds according to what is agreed,” he says.
“Also, at HUS hospital hygiene is at a very high level, the staff are knowledgeable and polite, and almost everyone speaks English.”