The Rise of The Robot Surgeon

The robot Surgeon is a phrase, which conjures up a clinical foreign future. But it’s wrong to think of it like that for a couple of reason.

Firstly it’s not really the future; it’s already with us. Secondly, the surgeon is no more robotic than they are now – but the tools they are using are becoming more advanced and robotic-like.

To understand the future of surgery I went to a low-rise building just off one of the main roads in Sunnyvale California. The town is home to the headquarters of Yahoo and sits in the centre of the high-tech Silicon Valley. That’s no coincidence – this is a technology company as much as it is a medical one.

Globally the market for medical robots and devices is growing. It’s already worth more than five billion dollars – and is set to be worth nearly 14 billion dollars by 2018. [1]

The company I was visiting creates a robotic surgery technology called the Da Vinci system.

Da Vinci robots operate in hospitals worldwide, with an estimated 200,000 surgeries conducted in 2012, most commonly for hysterectomies and prostrate removals.[2]

However the Da Vinci robot is thought to cost around $2 million- so while the technology is around – it’s not around much as cost prohibits its widespread use.[3] At least the Da Vinci machines cost a lot less than many of the real Da Vinci paintings.

The Da Vinci robots look a little like the robots that build many cars. Articulated arms swivel from a central joint. However there is no welding going on here, it’s a much more precise kind of operation.

To see how precise, I was allowed into their training facility to become surgeon for the day.

No patients were harmed in the making of this film and so I was operating on a tiny display of rubber bands and rubberised sticks. They were only a few centimetres high and my job was to pick up the tiny rubber band and hook it over the tiny stick.

The surgeon, or me, sits across the room from the patient and looks through a video panel at a display, which is magnified many times. I controlled the robotic arms via a few joysticks and foot pedals which allowed me to turned my large imprecise hand movements into very controlled small movements around the rubber bands.

It takes about half an hour to get the basic feel for it – and by then I was getting so confident I felt I could really have a go at a patient. There were no volunteers amongst the crew though so I stuck with the rubber bands.

Technology likes this of course enables surgeons to conduct very precise surgery. But it seems to me the full advantages haven’t quite been reached.

I was sitting just a few feet away from the operating table – but there is no real reason why I couldn’t have been sitting at home controlling the operation thousands of miles away in California.

If that happens, it would open a future in which patients around the world could benefit from surgical skills, not of robots but of human surgeons in different countries, delivered to them by robotic arms but very much dependent on a human surgeon’s skill. That, I think is the real future of the robotic surgeon and his very human skills.

 

[1] http://www.transparencymarketresearch.com/medical-robotic-systems.html

[2] Babbage Science and technology (18 January 2012). “Surgical robots: The kindness of strangers”. The Economist. Retrieved 21 February 2013.

[3] “The Slow Rise of the Robot Surgeon”. MIT Technology Review. 24 March 2010. Retrieved 23 March 2013.

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