Rise of the robo-surgeons: Would you let a robot perform your surgery?

Robo-surgery

Surgery performed by a robot? Yes, it's real.

Also known as robot-assisted surgery, robotic surgery is on the rise, but can these new 'mechanical surgeons' really work like a human surgeon? We explore the pros and cons of robo-surgeons, and look at a few common robotic procedures that, until recently, were only ever carried out by human hands.

Robotic surgery procedures

Currently the most common robot-assisted surgical procedure in Australia is the operation to remove prostate cancer by the da Vinci robot. It involves a computer guiding minuscule instruments attached to robotic arms directed by a surgeon, who sits near the operating table at a high-tech console. With hand and foot controls, the surgeon manipulates the instruments and a 3D camera to perform the intricate operation through a series of tiny incisions.

Clever robots are also playing a very important role in many other procedures including hysterectomies, heart valve surgery and partial removal of kidneys with cancer. In addition, robotics are lending a helping hand in hip replacements and partial knee replacement surgery with the MAKO robotic system.

The pros of robotic surgery

A robot-assisted prostate cancer procedure lasts between two and three hours, with many patients only staying in hospital overnight, while the traditional methods of laparoscopic or open surgery – which may involve longer incisions so the surgeon can insert full-size instruments – may need up to five days recovery in hospital.

Because robot-assisted surgery is performed through tiny incisions, it means less body trauma/pain, reduced blood loss and minimal scarring. The shorter healing time and hospital stay can result in a quicker return to normal activities. And the high levels of control and precision in the procedure result in fewer surgical complications and less risk of infection.

Robo-surgery

What about the cons?

Robot-assisted surgery does cost significantly more than traditional laparoscopic or open surgery with higher charges from both the hospital and the doctor – and there might not be a huge difference in outcomes. A recent Australian study of men who had undergone robot-assisted prostate cancer surgery revealed that, compared to traditional laparoscopic or open surgery, after 12 weeks there was no significant difference in post-operative outcomes such as urinary or sexual function.

Until recently, another con was that surgical robots simply didn't have the ability to 'feel' delicate or inflamed tissue like human hands can. But a breakthrough innovation developed by Deakin University, called the HeroSurg, is changing that. Using technology known as 'haptic feedback', which is similar to the vibration in video game controllers and smartphones, this impressive invention adds a 'sense of touch' to robotic keyhole surgery so that the surgeon can feel the instrument on the human tissue rather than just rely on seeing it.

So, can a procedure ever go wrong when assisted by a robot? Unfortunately, there is always a small chance of complications in any type of surgical procedure involving an anaesthetic, whether it's a traditional approach or not. And intelligent as they may be, robotic technologies are still machines – which means there’s a risk of malfunctioning.

While robots can’t replace the surgeon's skill yet, they do offer advantages. Their 3D cameras give the best view possible, and their small and flexible arms make access and controlled movement easier. They also provide a better ergonomic working environment for the surgeon.

We're still a long way off seeing a fully automated operating theatre with robots performing surgery without human supervision. Currently, some Australian facilities offer robotic assistance for procedures like urology, gynaecology, cardiothoracic, colorectal and endocrinology.

However, Medicare is yet to recognise some robotic procedures, which means these procedures will also not be covered under nib's hospital policies. Robotic-assisted procedures can also come with a higher cost and in many instances may result in out-of-pockets, so make sure you call 13 16 42 to discuss your options and check whether you’re covered.

While robotic surgeons sounds exciting, flying robots are saving lives across the globe right now. From drones that monitor the Australian coastline for shark activity to medi-drones delivering blood to remote communities, read more about life-saving drones here.

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