Is robotic surgery becoming the new norm?

Dr. Scott J. Boley demonstrates a robotic surgery system at the Montefiore Institute for Minimally Invasive Surgery in New York City.
Dr. Scott J. Boley demonstrates a robotic surgery system at the Montefiore Institute for Minimally Invasive Surgery in New York City.
Junko Kimura/Getty Images

Humans make mistakes, and in an operating room, mistakes can be fatal. So it's only natural that robotic surgery appeals to so many people.

But if you're picturing Rosie from "The Jetsons" with scalpel in metal hand, don't worry. A more apt description of this type of process is robot-assisted surgery. Think of robotic surgery as being performed by one unit made of two parts: surgeon and machine.

The idea behind robotic surgery is that it helps eliminate human error -- and overcome human limitation.

Robotic surgery systems are designed to do what a human with a tray full of surgical instruments can't: perform complex procedures inside the body through a 1- to 2-centimeter (.39- to .79-inch) incision. That's the meaning of minimally invasive. Open-heart surgery, for example, can become closed-chest surgery.

The most widely known robotic surgical systems in the U.S. are probably the da Vinci system and the ZEUS system, which are both master-slave manipulators. As unappealing as the term may be, it helps us better visualize the operating room setup:

  • Robotic arms near the patient move the endoscopic camera in the body and wield surgical instruments
  • The surgeon at his or her console watches a high-resolution 3D image of the body, hands on joysticks and a control panel to manipulate the robotic arms

The surgeon is operating on you without touching you, removing the chance of a trembling hand (the tremor filter takes care of that) or a dropped tool.

These systems are used for cardiothoracic, colorectal, urological, gynecological, head and neck and even general surgeries, for conditions ranging from throat cancer to mitral valve prolapse. According to Intuitive Surgical Inc., the makers of the da Vinci system, as of June 30, 2011, there were 1,993 of the systems in more than 1,560 hospitals around the world [source: Intuitive Surgical]. The company also claims that in 2009, 86 percent of the 85,000 men who had prostate cancer surgery chose a robotic procedure [source: Kolata]. According to Marty Makary of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, in four years, the use of robotics in common procedures has increased 400 percent [source: Johns Hopkins Medicine].

Considering that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration only approved these systems in 2000, the numbers are impressive. Clearly, robotic surgery has made progress in the marketplace.

But let's dig a little deeper.

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