Robotic surgery

By Carrie Johnson Weimar • Published: May 27th, 2009
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Robotic surgery used to conjure images of science fiction and outer space. But now the use of robots to perform complicated, intricate medical procedures is increasingly commonplace. And doctors say there are some real benefits to allowing these high-tech machines in the operating room.

The long-term goal of robotic or computer-assisted surgery is to be able to perform surgery remotely on soldiers in battle or astronauts in space. One obvious advantage? It reduces the number of surgeons who must be present to perform a certain procedure. Eventually, this could help reduce health-care costs.

Another benefit? The skill and precision robotic technology brings. Because the robots are so accurate, procedures can be performed less invasively. That means smaller incisions, and smaller incisions mean smaller scars. For example, with traditional bypass surgery, a patient’s chest must be cracked open with an incision as long as one foot. But using a robotic system called Da Vinci, just three or four one-centimeter incisions are necessary. As a result, the patient experiences less trauma and a much faster recovery time.

There are some drawbacks. Surgeries take a little longer because computer processing time must be taken into account. Also, mechanical arms simply don’t have tactile feedback, which makes it difficult to gauge how much pressure is needed to make an incision.

However, doctors say that on the whole, the increasing use of robots is an important advance for health care. Transatlantic surgery may even be possible within the next ten years. Science fiction? Not anymore.