Robotic surgery might seem like the stuff of science fiction lore, but it’s actually a massive industry that’s quickly emerged onto the scene and become the go-to method for attacking many invasive diseases and streamlining complex procedures.
The History of Robotic Surgery
The very first documented use of a robot-assisted surgical procedure took place in 1985. The PUMA 560 robotic surgical arm, the most advanced technology of its kind, was used in a neurosurgical biopsy (non-laparoscopic surgery). The procedure was successful and paved the way for other minimally invasive surgeries in the following years.
It wasn’t until the turn of the millennium that robotic surgery really took off, though. In 2000, the da Vinci Surgery System became the first ever FDA-approved robotic surgery system used for general laparoscopic surgery.
Over the last 18 years, robotic surgery has improved as technology has advanced, and doctors have become better trained and more comfortable with its applications. The da Vinci system has now been approved by the FDA for use in adult and pediatric surgical procedures, including urological surgeries, general laparoscopic surgeries, general non-cardiovascular thoracoscopic surgeries, and thoracoscopically-assisted cardiotomy procedures.
The Pros of Robotic Surgery
As robotic surgery becomes more common, it’s important for the general public to be aware of the pros and cons. Let’s start with the advantages:
- Extreme Precision
“A robotic system allows a surgeon to perform operations through a few small incisions,” which uses robotic surgery to remove cancerous bladders. “Movements by the surgeon’s hand or wrist are translated into highly precise movements of the surgical instruments. Every maneuver is directed by the surgeon, in real time, as the surgeon views a magnified, 3D, high-definition image of the surgical site.”
Not only does extreme precision lessen the risk of damage to the patient, but it also reduces blood loss and typically leads to faster post-op recovery.
- Better Visibility
With a large, high-resolution computer screen magnifying the doctor’s vision, the surgeon typically has a far better field of vision than would be present in a typical situation. Doctors may also be able to see into areas that are otherwise not accessible in a “manual” surgery.
- Less Doctor Fatigue
Robotic surgery allows the surgeon to sit down in a comfortable position, rather than having to stand up and crane the neck for hours on end. This leads to less doctor fatigue, which reduces the risk of omissions and errors that often arise when doctors are forced to perform long surgeries.
The Cons of Robotic Surgery
Robotic surgery isn’t a perfect solution. There are also some potential risks, including:
- Higher Costs
One of the biggest cons with robotic surgery is the expense. The cost of robotic equipment is astronomical, as is the expense of maintaining the equipment and disposing of supplies.
The higher costs tend to be passed onto the patients and their insurance providers, which can be a sticking point. As robotic surgery reaches an economy of scale, the cost factor will become less of an issue. However, these types of procedures will always come with a premium attached.
- Intensive Learning Required
Learning to use robotic surgical equipment is almost like learning how to perform surgery all over again. Intensive training is required for a doctor to become proficient with the technology, yet this isn’t always followed through on like it should be.
“Patients may be surprised to learn that there are no national training standards for robotic surgery,” AARP explains. “The training provided to surgeons new to the technique typically consists of online instruction, a one-day session at the manufacturer’s headquarters in California and two supervised surgeries. It’s up to the individual hospital to decide when doctors can perform robotic operations on their own.”
While most hospitals realize it’s in their best interest to establish rigorous internal standards, there’s also a push to use the technology (which is an expensive investment). This can lead medical facilities to make cost-effective decisions that aren’t always as safe as they should be for the patient.
- Less Tactile Feedback
Surgeons often rely on “feel” in surgical procedures. Their experience tells them when something feels right or wrong. The problem with robotic surgery is that it doesn’t provide nearly the tactile feedback that some surgeons require in order to have peace of mind.
For example, a surgeon can feel the different tactile responses when making incisions by hand. There’s a significant difference between cutting skin, muscle, and other materials. With technology, this feedback won’t always be noticeable, which could increase the risk of inadvertently nicking an organ or causing excessive nerve damage. This is something that can be improved upon with advances to technology, but it’s a very real issue at the moment.
The future of robotic surgery is brighter than ever. The hardware and software behind these technologies are advancing at a faster rate than ever – as is the public’s confidence in these procedures. While risks will always be present, the hope is that robotic surgery will ultimately lead to faster, safer, and more cost-effective surgeries.