Advantages of Robotic Surgery

In today's operating rooms, you'll find two or three surgeons, an anesthesiologist and several nurses, all needed for even the simplest of surgeries. Most surgeries require nearly a dozen people in the room. As with all automation, surgical robots will eventually eliminate the need for some personnel. Taking a glimpse into the future, surgery may require only one surgeon, an anesthesiologist and one or two nurses. In this nearly empty operating room, the doctor sits at a computer console, either in or outside the operating room, using the surgical robot to accomplish what it once took a crowd of people to perform.

The use of a computer console to perform operations from a distance opens up the idea of telesurgery, which would involve a doctor performing delicate surgery miles away from the patient. If the doctor doesn't have to stand over the patient to perform the surgery, and can control the robotic arms from a computer station just a few feet away from the patient, the next step would be performing surgery from locations that are even farther away. If it were possible to use the computer console to move the robotic arms in real-time, then it would be possible for a doctor in California to operate on a patient in New York. A major obstacle in telesurgery has been latency -- the time delay between the doctor moving his or her hands to the robotic arms responding to those movements. Currently, the doctor must be in the room with the patient for robotic systems to react instantly to the doctor's hand movements.

Having fewer personnel in the operating room and allowing doctors the ability to operate on a patient long-distance could lower the cost of health care in the long term. In addition to cost efficiency, robotic surgery has several other advantages over conventional surgery, including enhanced precision and reduced trauma to the patient. For instance, traditional heart bypass surgery requires that the patient's chest be "cracked" open by way of a 1-foot (30.48-cm) long incision. However, with the da Vinci system, it's possible to operate on the heart by making three or four small incisions in the chest, each only about 1 centimeter in length. Because the surgeon would make these smaller incisions instead of one long one down the length of the chest, the patient would experience less pain, trauma and bleeding, which means a faster recovery.

Robotic assistants can also decrease the fatigue that doctors experience during surgeries that can last several hours. Surgeons can become exhausted during those long surgeries, and can experience hand tremors as a result. Even the steadiest of human hands cannot match those of a surgical robot. Engineers program robotic surgery systems to compensate for tremors, so if the doctor's hand shakes the computer ignores it and keeps the mechanical arm steady.

Let's take a look at the different approaches to robot surgery, starting with supervisory-controlled systems in the next section.