Robotic surgery dates back to 1985 when a neurosurgeon used an early model of a surgical robot to successfully perform brain biopsies. Since then, in response to lower cost and higher patient demand, the use of surgical robots has risen meteorically. Now it appears that robotic surgery is poised to dramatically change the entire healthcare industry.
The most common and well-known robotic surgeon on the market is the da Vinci Surgical System. This system consists of three small but precise robotic arms, a 3D endoscopic camera, and a control console. By viewing the 3D screen, the doctor is able to operate the arms from the control console. The robot makes three small incisions and performs the surgery with a degree of precision that would be impossible for human hands to emulate. These precise movements, as well as the small incisions, allow less tissue damage and a speedier recovery.
A study in 2008 found a dramatically faster recovery time and shorter hospital stay for patients who had their heart surgery performed robotically over traditional methods of open heart surgery. Because it is minimally invasive, it is used frequently for prostate and kidney surgeries as well. Robotic systems also are useful for throat surgeries, because the flexible arm of a robot works better for the tongue and the back of the throat than traditional instruments, which are straight and rigid. The systems are now so easy to use that medical students are mastering the technology in just 20 minutes and with only three tries.
In response to the Affordable Care Act, which mandates high-quality healthcare at affordable costs, surgical systems are increasing in demand. As people learn more about them, patients often ask for robotic surgery instead of traditional open surgery. The demand is increasing so much that sales are predicted to increase to $6.4 billion by the year 2020.
The implications for the future of the medical field are huge. Some believe that the technology may soon allow doctors to perform surgery remotely on patients from another city. Because they are so easy to use, it’s possible that people with only basic medical training may be able to perform routine surgeries, freeing up surgeons for more major operations. And military medics could even potentially perform surgery in the field.
With the blooming technology of artificial intelligence and virtual reality, some think that doctors may be able to perform surgery by remotely controlling the machines with their brain waves while in a virtual reality that mimics the inside of the patient’s body. Some researchers are working on innovations to make robotic surgery even more intuitive, such as tiny nanobots which can move around inside the body, or a snake-like robot that can slither to hard-to-reach areas.
Does all this sound too good to be true? It turns out there are some limitations. Robots lack the intuition to make major medical decisions. Also, their sensors can’t “feel” vibrations and other tactile feedback in the same way that a human can, although researchers are working to improve that technology. Another problem is that medical students are no longer learning as much about traditional surgery. Not all places in the world have embraced robotic surgery, and we still need doctors that understand traditional surgery to inform research and decisions.
There is still some work to be done to make sure our technology does not outpace our knowledge with regard to these medical innovations. But with lower cost and improved patient outcomes, it appears that robotic surgery may soon be more the norm than the exception.
- Kiger, Patrick J. “What Is the Future of Robotic Surgery?” How Stuff Works http://health.howstuffworks.com/medicine/modern-technology/future-robotic-surgery.htm.
- Mearian, Lucas. “A Robot Will Likely Assist in Your Future Surgery.” Computerworld, 2 May 2016, http://www.computerworld.com/article/3039586/healthcare-it/a-robot-will-likely-assist-in-your-future-surgery.html.
- Polland, Jennifer. “Watch: This Robot Is Poised To Change Surgery Forever.” Business Insider, 1 Aug. 2012, http://www.businessinsider.com/the-future-of-robotic-surgery-2012-7.