Technology in Medicine: Robotic Assistance in Surgeries

Written by yvonnethornton on May 20th, 2013

“Robots” are being used to assist in surgeries throughout the world. It sounds like something out of a movie, doesn’t it? The use of this kind of technology in medicine is raising a lot of questions for patients. Some may believe that the more technology that is used during their surgery, the better—others may have problems with the idea of a “machine” doing a lot of the work during a surgery. Doctors and surgeons are divided in much the same way, which is why studies are currently being done to assess the differences between robotic-assisted surgeries and traditional surgery methods.

In one study, women who were scheduled to receive hysterectomies were divided into two groups. One group received robotic assistance during surgery and the other did not. Researchers found that there were no significant differences in the outcomes of the surgeries—however, the robotic-assisted surgeries did take longer to complete. It may not seem like much of a finding, especially for patients, but studies like these may help ease the mind of individuals who worry about advances in medicine and whether or not they will be safe during their own surgeries or medical procedures.

Surgery—especially gynecological surgery—is becoming increasingly sophisticated, and that is good news for patients. Procedures that were once much more invasive can now be performed via laparoscopic methods, with only a few small incisions. While the outcomes at present are still very much the same for surgeries that do and do not use robotic assistance, there is a strong likelihood that in the future, as the technology advances, robotic-assisted surgeries could actually be much more advanced, and have much better postoperative outcomes compared to traditional surgical methods.

On the other hand, robotic surgery is very expensive (The DaVinci system costs 1.3 million dollars) and is labor-intensive (increased operating time), which means the patient is under anesthesia for a longer period of time, which may have serious sequelae.  All this has to be factored into the equation.  As a surgeon myself, the only advantage I see is that the surgeon gets to sit down during the entire procedure.  As a Catch-22, using robotic technology also reduces the training of young surgeons in the traditional approaches to operations, and thus the skill and “tried and true” surgical techniques are lost because they are no longer taught and performed on a daily basis.  The robot may have to be the wave of the future, by default, because surgical residents will no longer be taught how to do surgery the traditional way, and thereby fulfilling the prophesy.

The reason I find this so important to point out is to ease the minds of patients who worry about new methodologies in medicine—the simple fact is that even though surgery is growing more complex, it is also constantly improving in its ability to treat patients with a wide range of problems. While some of the newest trends in medicine may seem like science fiction more than anything else, our surgeons need to know and to be comfortable with both forms of surgery in order to have outcomes most advantageous for the patient.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, M. D., M. P. H.


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