Introduction to How Robotic Surgery Will Work
Just as computers revolutionized the latter half of the 20th century, the field of robotics has the potential to equally alter how we live in the 21st century. We've already seen how robots have changed the manufacturing of cars and other consumer goods by streamlining and speeding up the assembly line. We even have robotic lawn mowers and robotic pets. And robots have enabled us to see places that humans are not yet able to visit, such as other planets and the depths of the ocean.
In the coming decades, we may see robots that have artificial intelligence. Some, like Honda's ASIMO robot, will resemble the human form. They may eventually become self-aware and conscious, and be able to do anything that a human can. When we talk about robots doing the tasks of humans, we often talk about the future, but robotic surgery is already a reality. Doctors around the world are using sophisticated robots to perform surgical procedures on patients.
Not all surgical robots are equal. There are three different kinds of robotic surgery systems: supervisory-controlled systems, telesurgical systems and shared-control systems. The main difference between each system is how involved a human surgeon must be when performing a surgical procedure. On one end of the spectrum, robots perform surgical techniques without the direct intervention of a surgeon. On the other end, doctors perform surgery with the assistance of a robot, but the doctor is doing most of the work [source: Brown University].
The military is responsible for many of the advances in robotic surgery. That's because military officials hoped that robotic surgery would provide a way for doctors to help patients on the front lines of combat zones without putting themselves in danger. So far, latency issues make long-distance telesurgery difficult, but civilian doctors have put the technology to good use.
While robotic surgery systems are still relatively uncommon, several hospitals around the world have bought robotic surgical systems. These systems have the potential to improve the safety and effectiveness of surgeries. But the systems also have some drawbacks. It's still a relatively young science and it's very expensive. Some hospitals may be holding back on adopting the technology.
Why would a hospital consider a robotic surgery system in the first place? Find out in the next section.
Advantages of Robotic Surgery
In today's operating rooms, you'll find two or three surgeons, an anesthesiologist and several nurses, all needed for even the simplest of surgeries. Most surgeries require nearly a dozen people in the room. As with all automation, surgical robots will eventually eliminate the need for some personnel. Taking a glimpse into the future, surgery may require only one surgeon, an anesthesiologist and one or two nurses. In this nearly empty operating room, the doctor sits at a computer console, either in or outside the operating room, using the surgical robot to accomplish what it once took a crowd of people to perform.
The use of a computer console to perform operations from a distance opens up the idea of telesurgery, which would involve a doctor performing delicate surgery miles away from the patient. If the doctor doesn't have to stand over the patient to perform the surgery, and can control the robotic arms from a computer station just a few feet away from the patient, the next step would be performing surgery from locations that are even farther away. If it were possible to use the computer console to move the robotic arms in real-time, then it would be possible for a doctor in California to operate on a patient in New York. A major obstacle in telesurgery has been latency -- the time delay between the doctor moving his or her hands to the robotic arms responding to those movements. Currently, the doctor must be in the room with the patient for robotic systems to react instantly to the doctor's hand movements.
Having fewer personnel in the operating room and allowing doctors the ability to operate on a patient long-distance could lower the cost of health care in the long term. In addition to cost efficiency, robotic surgery has several other advantages over conventional surgery, including enhanced precision and reduced trauma to the patient. For instance, traditional heart bypass surgery requires that the patient's chest be "cracked" open by way of a 1-foot (30.48-cm) long incision. However, with the da Vinci system, it's possible to operate on the heart by making three or four small incisions in the chest, each only about 1 centimeter in length. Because the surgeon would make these smaller incisions instead of one long one down the length of the chest, the patient would experience less pain, trauma and bleeding, which means a faster recovery.