Robotic Surgery

Medical robotics is solving these and far more complex problems. Robotic surgery and robotic surgical technologies, including robot-assisted surgery (RAS) and the ability to perform surgery robotically from a remote location (a practical application of telepresence, the remote operation of a robotic system with the aid of an immersive human interface*), are gaining both acceptance and prestige throughout the medical community. Time and again, robotic surgery has proven its worth by enabling surgeons to perform medical procedures that in prior decades would never have been contemplated. The benefits of robotic surgical procedures, having accrued in the early stages of robotic surgery to a select group of patients, are being felt more widely as robotic surgical procedures become time tested. Payment approval by your medical insurance group or HMO for a robotic surgical procedure is now far more likely than was the case just five years ago.

Medical technology continues to advance, resulting in newer procedures and development of robotic devices capable of performing them. As robotic surgery becomes more cost effective, robots will be created to perform commonplace surgeries so that a surgeon’s skill can be devoted to performing more critical and challenging surgical tasks.

Exactly how have robotic surgical technologies evolved? Surgeons and medical experts are constantly seeking new ways to treat diseases and injuries. A surgeon’s professional reputation can be made or greatly enhanced by developing a new surgical procedure. A patient is diagnosed with a condition that demands a type of surgical procedure never before attempted or even conceived. A company, seeking to develop a marketable medical product, turns to its technical staff and outside experts to discover what is needed and how it can be designed. These driving forces help to constantly propel medical technology forward. Robotic surgery is a natural outgrowth of this technological evolution.

The array of surgical instruments and equipment available to the modern surgeon has come about through a long process of development by past medical professionals. In like manner, today’s surgeons and medical experts are teaming with researchers, private and public companies, universities and government agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and even the military to develop tools and techniques destined for the operating rooms of the future, which may even be located on the battlefield or in space.

Some of that future is here now, as surgeons turn to the field of medical robotics in an attempt to heal diseases and injuries that have hitherto defied medical science. Robotic surgical systems are at present extremely expensive, with each type of system typically designed to perform only a single type or a very limited range of surgical procedures. This will change as new technologies, particularly in the areas of computing, artificial intelligence (AI) and servo control, make it possible to build better surgical robots with an enhanced range of capabilities.

Medical robotics is only one area of technology of interest to today’s surgeon — but it is a promising one. Increasingly, surgeons recognize the limitations they are faced with upon venturing into the operating room. In the past, the surgeon’s knowledge and skilled, steady hand were what was necessary to get the job done; today, those assets may not be enough. Modern surgical procedures are far more intricate than those of the past. A complex surgical procedure may last over 15 hours and require a team of surgeons. Such surgeries place a great deal of stress upon the surgeons and their support staff, but also upon the patient.

Robotic surgery and RAS can reduce both time spent in surgery and time required for a patient to recover from an operation because they reduce the complexity of the overall surgical procedure by reducing its physical scope. Robotic surgery is more precise, requiring smaller incisions, and is less invasive, so there is less cutting involved and a smaller amount of tissue damage than occurs during conventional surgery. These factors result in less trauma to the body and faster healing.

Will robots eventually replace human surgeons? No. Today’s robots are tools used by surgeons, not surgeons themselves. They can perform their tasks only when guided by skilled hands and minds. While in the distant future robots may gain more autonomy in their surgical abilities, and may even be provided with sufficient intelligence to perform some surgeries unsupervised, it is highly unlikely that they will ever replace the skill of the surgeon. It is quite conceivable, however, that the surgeon’s place will no longer be in the operating room, but instead will be at a remote location in a VR (virtual reality) environment orchestrating surgical procedures — perhaps more than one simultaneously — through electronic linkages similar to the fly by wire technology recently developed for today’s military and commercial pilots.

In the meantime, we or someone we know may become beneficiaries of bold new technologies relating to robotic surgery, RAS and telepresence such as those you can read about here. As technology advances, our options for minimally invasive surgery, thanks to the latest robotic surgical technologies, will only become brighter.

Authored by Kenneth L. Anderson.  Original article published 11 June 2003, updated 1 September 2005.

Follow links to the right to learn more about current and future robotic surgery and robotic surgical technology. At the left margin, Related Links address topics of interest pertaining to robotics and automation. View the Robotics & Automation SiteMap for a complete list of robotics and automation topics.

See Tech, Science & Engineering Jobs if you are seeking a professional career in robotics applications or robotics research. See our Physician Jobs & Medical Doctor Jobs if you are seeking a surgical career.

* Telepresence definition courtesy of The Encyclopedia of Virtual Environments, Human Interface Technology Laboratory (HITL or HIT Lab), College of Engineering, University of Washington (UW)

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