Robot-assisted surgery might sound futuristic, but in fact, medical robots have existed for 36 years. Robotic systems can act as an extension of a surgeon’s body, giving them precision and delicate tools that make them superhuman.
As hardware and software continue to evolve, there are more and more applications for medical robots. But when it comes to medicine, safety is always the underlying goal — so humans are still there, at least for now, guiding the machines and overseeing the subtle details.
Robot-Assisted Surgery 101
Robots, surgeons and other medical professionals work as a team. The Mayo Clinic describes the most widely used robotic surgical system as having arms with a camera and surgical instruments attached to them. The surgeon controls the arms from a nearby console and leads their team through the procedure while the robotic arms make tiny incisions and the camera provides a magnified view of the surgical site.
There are clear benefits to using a robot for certain surgeries. One main advantage is that medical robots can be equipped with miniaturized instruments that make tiny, precise incisions, allowing for less invasive surgery. Robotic hands also have more dexterity and range of motion than humans, which enables them to access hard-to-reach places without making a large incision in the body.
Plus, the camera provides a high-definition, 3D view of the inside of a patient’s body. As UCLA Health points out, robotic systems provide highly magnified images that are much sharper in resolution than those a surgeon would see with their own eyes while standing over a patient.
Robots are consistent, sterile and precise — all qualities that are welcome in the medical field. No matter how long a surgery lasts, a robotic arm isn’t going to get tired and shaky. Surgeons use a console to tell the robot exactly what to do, and they can even measure distances between points before moving the tools. Creating more physical distance between humans and surgeries also reduces the risk of infection. Plus, the tiny tools mean patients will have smaller scars, less pain and blood loss, and faster recoveries.
Of course, there are also some drawbacks to robot-assisted surgery. It is still a surgery, and robots don’t eliminate all risk of infection and other complications. Perhaps the biggest limitation is access to robots. The equipment can be expensive, and it requires surgeons to spend time on specialized training — on top of their already extensive medical training.
Robots in the Operating Room
UCLA Health describes several common types of robotic surgery:
Head and neck surgery
Robot-assisted surgery is especially useful for cardiac surgery because the tiny instruments are much less invasive than open-heart surgery, according to John Hopkins Medicine. Open-heart surgery requires a surgeon to cut through the patient’s breastbone, but conditions such as valve surgery, coronary artery bypass and tumor removal can be done via a robotic system that makes smaller incisions. This approach can be less risky and leads to faster healing times, so patients can get back to enjoying their lives sooner. The scarring is significantly less, with just a few small scars on the side of the patient’s chest versus a 10-inch chest scar from open-heart surgery.
Evolution of Robotic Surgery
According to Robotic Oncology, the first documented robot-assisted surgical procedure was a neurosurgical biopsy that took place in 1985. This early robotic surgery was soon followed by robotic laparoscopic surgery, a type of less-invasive surgery that uses flexible fiber optic cameras. In 1990, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a system for endoscopic surgical procedures. There was a turning point in 2000, when the da Vinci Surgery System became the first FDA-approved robotic surgery system for general laparoscopic surgery. Since then, robotic surgery has become more common. The next generation of medical robotics could soon expand the advantages and make robotic surgery even more common for a wider variety of conditions.
Outlook: Are Robots Taking Over?
Medicine is not a battle between humans and robots. Currently, robotic surgery is still ultimately in human hands,
Surgeons still control the robots and are ready to step in and take over with the human touch, if necessary. Plus, humans are still writing the software code and designing robots. But, as artificial intelligence continues to improve, this innovative technology could soon become even more capable and autonomous. Surgery will always involve some degree of risk, but robots could help to reduce that risk — perhaps entirely — and improve the experience.