Will Robotics Prove to Be the Future in Surgery?

May 25, 2018


Poor employee health may be the reason US companies waste more than half a trillion dollars per year as a result of low productivity. Some of these companies have decided to provide their employees with health insurance plans in order to increase productivity, while others have taken a step further and decided to invest in wearables and health programs designed to improve health outcomes. Just as gadgets are used by companies and employees everywhere in order to keep the doctor away, AI and robotics may prove to be the future in surgery, directly influencing not only the way we define this medical procedure, but also its outcome.

Recent breakthroughs

The future of AI and robotics has never been brighter. Hanson Robotics’ Sophia has become a global phenomenon due to its expressiveness and ability to engage in natural conversations with humans. She has appeared alongside numerous stars, including Cristiano Ronaldo and Will Smith, in videos that later went viral all over the world. While Sophia is proof that AI and robotics are rapidly becoming more sophisticated, surgical robots are also transforming healthcare. The University of Pennsylvania has recently proven this fact by completing the first-ever robot-assisted spinal surgery working with Da Vinci’s robotic arms in order to remove a rare tumor. The Da Vinci system was a key feature in this case, as normal surgery could have compromised the patient’s spine due to the tumor’s location. This may have resulted in leaving him paralyzed or without important functions. Instead, the Da Vinci system offered doctors a three-dimensional, high-definition view and allowed them to operate without the risks normal surgery would have entailed.

What do doctors advise?

Most surgeons indicate that robotic surgery is the future, as it causes less pain than a conventional intervention and provides a faster recovery for patients. Robotic surgery also lets surgeons perform more specific operations, with minimum risks. “There are a number of benefits of this minimally invasive procedure, importantly for our patients. They lose less blood, experience less pain, recover quicker, and leave hospital sooner. The robotic surgery allows us to see in close detail in 3D-magnified images, and with its three arms maximizes surgical precision,” Dr. Shahnawaz Rasheed, a specialist in colorectal cancer, stated.  Human surgeons are still heavily involved in the process, as the Da Vinci system and others around the world require the surgeons to take a seat in a ‘cockpit’ structure and operate the device and its robotic arms. “Robotic surgery is not autonomous but is controlled by us the surgeons,” Dr. Shahnawaz Rasheed stated. Still, the robotic device provides surgeons with super human eyesight, vision and precision, features that can lead to an overall better performance than what doctors can offer by themselves. Surgeons suggest that using robotic systems such as the Da Vinci will minimize surgical complications for the patients and also provide doctors with health benefits, as standard surgical procedures can be physically demanding and may lead to health problems.

What about the costs?

Robotics plays a bigger role than ever before in the development of the healthcare sector. But the use of robotic systems such as the Da Vinci is still limited due to its costs: $2 million in acquisition and several hundred thousand dollars each year in maintenance costs. Surgeons everywhere have praised the system for allowing better, safer and more specific interventions, but the price has also given rise to criticism. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the Da Vinci system for use so robots are now used around the US, but costs may still prove to be prohibitive for certain hospitals.

Robotic-assisted surgery may turn out to be the first step towards an autonomous robotic system that will provide patients worldwide with safer options for their surgical interventions. On their own, the systems used today have already revolutionized many surgical interventions, such as prostate cancer surgeries, hernia repairs, colectomies and surgeries of the stomach, liver, bile duct, spleen, pancreas as well as gall bladder problems. Spinal surgery procedures that would have otherwise put the patients at a greater risk were upgraded to an overall better performance. Although costs remain high, AI and robotics are rapidly becoming not only better, but also more available worldwide.