New Breed Of Robots Compete For Space At The Operating Table


Though there is still some room for improvement, robot doctors are becoming a growing trend in the U.S. — so much so that experts predict that, in the next five years, one in three surgeries will be performed by them.

This charge has been led by U.S. company Intuitive Surgicals' "da Vinci" machines, with the company placing more than 3,600 of its surgical robots in hospitals worldwide. The robots have seen a 16 percent increase in the number of procedures they have been used in compared with last year, and that number is expected to rise even further in the future as they find increased use in India and China.

What Is The da Vinci System?

Contrary to the autonomous machines that we're used to seeing nowadays, the da Vinci machines are controlled entirely by surgeons in the operating room (there are some instances of such machines performing medical operations, but they aren't as common).

To do so, the surgeon sits at a console, which can project 3D and HD images from inside the patient's body, where s/he can watch the procedure and control the robot's four arms. One arm has an endoscope — a thin tube with a camera at the end — while the other three hold various medical equipment that can be be changed based on the operation and that is completely controlled by the surgeon.

Naturally, the surgeon's hand movements translate to movements made by the robot's arms, which can then bend and rotate accordingly.

In the end, doctors say that, not only does the robot provide greater precision, but it also helps to reduce fatigue when they have to perform multiple surgeries with little rest.

Still Has Room For Improvement

Despite da Vinci offering several benefits, and with many American hospitals for cancer treatment, urology, gynecology and gastroenterology already making the plunge, there are still several hurdles the robot must clear before it becomes mainstream.

First off, while the robot is indeed designed to alleviate fatigue for doctors who need to perform multiple surgeries with little rest and give them greater precision while in use, some doctors suggest that the machine actually slows operations down.

One such doctor is Dr. Helmuth Billy, who, as an early adopter of the da Vinci system 15 years ago, says he rarely uses the machine anymore since equipping the arms with instruments was too labor-intensive.

"I like to do five operations a day," Dr. Billy said. "If I have
 to constantly dock and undock da Vinci, it becomes cumbersome."

In a similar vein, there is at least one study that suggests that robotic-assisted surgeries aren't overly advantageous in comparison to traditional surgeries for the patient.

Another hurdle is the price. Robotics of this nature are always an expensive affair, and the da Vinci is no different, costing an average of $1.5 million on top of maintenance expenses.

Lastly, there are a bunch of features that this machine lacks but that doctors would like to have, such as the ability to feel body tissue remotely, called haptic sensing, and better image quality.

Weakness Breeds Competition

Thanks to those aforementioned weaknesses, rivals plan to swoop in and potentially overthrow Intuitive Surgicals and da Vinci. For example, Verb Surgical, a venture backed by Johnson & Johnson and Google, is investing around $250 million in its robotics project, saying that creating a faster and user-friendly system is the priority. 

Meanwhile another rival, Medtronic, has predicted that its own surgical robot will be ready for launch in mid-2018 and has India planned as its first market.

Overall, these two newcomers, as well as the likes of others such as TransEnterix and Titan Medical, have the same objective: to produce a new robotic system that is priced low enough to get hospitals and medical centers that have not purchased da Vinci to get their product instead, and convince those who do have a da Vinci to invest in a second machine or switch suppliers.

Regardless of advantages and weaknesses, though, the battle among robots for a space at the operating table is only just beginning, and it's believed the amount of surgical robots will more than double by 2021 in the U.S. 

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