October 28, 2016      

This past spring, a team at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., compared surgery performed by a robot with a procedure performed by a human to attach a pig’s bowel during an open procedure. It found that a robot surgeon can do just as good a job as a trained human.

But many people in the medical community would be quick to say that while surgical robots are a magnificent technological breakthrough, they are still meant to complement rather than replace human surgeons.

The Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot, or STAR, is intended to help surgeons at Children’s National Medical Center perfect and optimize operations.

da Vinci robot surgeon gets started in Reston, Va.

Surgeons in Reston, Va., celebrate the adoption of a da Vinci Xi robotic system.

Meanwhile, at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi, doctors have established the Institute for Defense Robotic Surgical Education. The institute’s goal is to provide surgeons credentials for robot surgery.

As the technology advances, a robot surgeon will become ever more deft at performing tiny incisions and movements, which should benefit patients. Minimally invasive surgery is generally easier to recover from.

The skill and accuracy of robot surgeons is expected to become a valuable component of many different types of procedures, ranging from orthotic implants to prostate surgery and more.

Orthopedic market growing fast

The global market for orthopedic surgical robots and robotically assisted surgery is flourishing, according to Wintergreen Research. It attributed this to the benefits that clinicians have observed in many medical venues.

Although a robot surgeon probably won’t replace a human surgeon anytime soon, Wintergreen said that the market for hip and knee orthopedic surgical robot devices will grow from $222 million this year to $5 billion by 2022.

At Reston Hospital Center, which is part of Hospital Corporation of America’s Virginia Health System, surgeons are using Intuitive Surgical Inc.’s da Vinci Xi robot for minimally invasive procedures. Several hospitals across the U.S. are using the da Vinci for applications such as gynecology and urology, as well as thoracic, cardiac, and general surgery.

“The new Xi system is a great advancement for surgery,” said Brett Sachse, section chief of general surgery at Reston Hospital Center and the first to use this technology. “Patients who have robotic surgery have less pain, a faster return to work, and overall higher satisfaction.”

The da Vinci system works with the surgeon. In fact, the surgeon is 100 percent control. The robot allows for very precise movements that could not ordinarily be made with the human touch because of the natural tremor and movement of the human body.

However, the growing robot surgeon market isn’t inevitable. Concerns about cost and insurance coverage, the need to retrain human surgeons, and competition among robotics suppliers have slowed growth in the past year. Both technology providers and end-user institutions will need to cooperate to ensure wider adoption.

More on Robot Surgeons:

Federal funding for robot surgeon development

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation, among other agencies, plan to spend about $2.2 million over the next five years to fund robot development as part of the National Robotics Initiative (NRI).

The NIH is developing several robots. Two of the robots will improve health and quality of life for individuals with disabilities. A third will serve as a social companion for children.

“When the general public thinks about the research that NIH supports, they don’t usually imagine robots,” says Grace Peng, program director of rehabilitation engineering at the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, a part of the NIH. “But robots have a tremendous potential to contribute to the health and well-being of our society, whether they are helping an elderly person engage in physical activity or promoting the curiosity of a child.”