Robotics in healthcare

The Keesler Medical Center recently acquired two of the da Vinci Xi which is one of the newest robotic surgical systems out there and the first of its kind for the Air Force. One surgical robot is set up as part of the Institute for Defense Robotic Surgical Education to assist surgeons in getting their official robotic surgery credentials. (Courtesy/Air Force Medical Service)

Imagine a doctor that does not need sleep or food, does not succumb to distractions and does not have prejudices that change the way sick and vulnerable patients are treated. Seem impossible? Some argue this is where the rise of surgical robots is headed. Before we try to look too far into the future or make radical predictions, it is necessary to understand the history behind this movement.

Beginning in the late 20th century, teams of physicians, engineers, and researchers came together to find a way in which our modern technology could improve the world of medicine. The goal of utilizing robots in medicine was not only to provide improved diagnostic abilities, but also to create an overall less invasive and more comfortable experience for the patient.

In 1985, The PUMA 560 was used for CT guidance and successfully placed a needle for a brain biopsy. Two years later, a cholecystectomy was performed as the first Laparoscopic surgery. Later came the PROBOT (prostatic surgery), the ROBODOC (precise hip replacement fittings), the AESOP, the ZEUS, and most recently, the da Vinci Surgical System. These surgical “robots” were created to reduce strain on surgeons, expedite time in the operating room, cut down on medical costs, and reduce the amount of personnel needed during surgery.

Despite these intended goals and attempts to bring about a shift to robotic surgeries, the field of medical robotics is still a new idea with many implications and much more work to be done. In terms of logistics, there is extensive training time required for physicians to learn to program and operate machines.

In addition, there are issues with latency, the time lapse between the moments when the physicians direct the controls and when the robot can respond. Despite the precision of these machines, there is still chance for human error if the physician programs the robot incorrectly prior to surgery. A human surgeon can make needed adjustments during an operation while a computer program may not be able to change course as rapidly.

Benjamin Chung, a urological oncologist at Stanford Medical Center conducted research on the cost-effectiveness of surgical robots and found that robot-assisted laparoscopies not only were twice as likely to take longer than four hours but also “boosted the average hospital cost from $16,851 to $19,530." In addition to this increased cost from extra time in the operating room, with such little competition in medical robotics, the few manufacturers that exist can set their own prices, creating an even further need to carefully evaluate cost-effectiveness of this new technology.

Before examining surgical robots’ role in the medical field, many important considerations must be taken into account. In order to reap the benefits and avoid potential dangers of a technological revolution that affects human lives so directly, we need to keep informed of the strides science makes in order to better prepare and adapt. Though the idea of replacing a physician with a “robotic doctor” that does not need sleep or food is still far off in the future, it is crucial to gain a better understanding of the technology to make a smoother transition to this potential revolution.


Lily Zhong is a contributor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at lily.zhong@uconn.edu.