Robot-assisted surgery

A robotically assisted surgical system used for prostatectomies, cardiac valve repair and gynecologic surgical procedures

Robotic surgery, computer-assisted surgery, and robotically-assisted surgery are terms for technological developments that use robotic systems to aid in surgical procedures. Robotically-assisted surgery was developed to overcome the limitations of pre-existing minimally-invasive surgical procedures and to enhance the capabilities of surgeons performing open surgery.

In the case of robotically-assisted minimally-invasive surgery, instead of directly moving the instruments, the surgeon uses one of two methods to control the instruments; either a direct telemanipulator or through computer control. A telemanipulator is a remote manipulator that allows the surgeon to perform the normal movements associated with the surgery whilst the robotic arms carry out those movements using end-effectors and manipulators to perform the actual surgery on the patient. In computer-controlled systems the surgeon uses a computer to control the robotic arms and its end-effectors, though these systems can also still use telemanipulators for their input. One advantage of using the computerised method is that the surgeon does not have to be present, but can be anywhere in the world, leading to the possibility for remote surgery.

In the case of enhanced open surgery, autonomous instruments (in familiar configurations) replace traditional steel tools, performing certain actions (such as rib spreading) with much smoother, feedback-controlled motions than could be achieved by a human hand. The main object of such smart instruments is to reduce or eliminate the tissue trauma traditionally associated with open surgery without requiring more than a few minutes' training on the part of surgeons. This approach seeks to improve open surgeries, particularly cardio-thoracic, that have so far not benefited from minimally-invasive techniques.

Robotic surgery has been criticized for its expense, by one estimate costing $1,500 to $2000 more per patient.[1]

Comparison to traditional methods

Major advances aided by surgical robots have been remote surgery, minimally invasive surgery and unmanned surgery. Due to robotic use, the surgery is done with precision, miniaturization, smaller incisions; decreased blood loss, less pain, and quicker healing time. Articulation beyond normal manipulation and three-dimensional magnification helps resulting in improved ergonomics. Due to these techniques there is a reduced duration of hospital stays, blood loss, transfusions, and use of pain medication.[2] The existing open surgery technique has many flaws like limited access to surgical area, long recovery time, long hours of operation, blood loss, surgical scars and marks.[3]

The robot normally costs $1,390,000 and while its disposable supply cost is normally $1,500 per procedure, the cost of the procedure is higher.[1] Additional surgical training is needed to operate the system.[4] Numerous feasibility studies have been done to determine whether the purchase of such systems are worthwhile. As it stands, opinions differ dramatically. Surgeons report that, although the manufacturers of such systems provide training on this new technology, the learning phase is intensive and surgeons must operate on twelve to eighteen patients before they adapt. During the training phase, minimally invasive operations can take up to twice as long as traditional surgery, leading to operating room tie ups and surgical staffs keeping patients under anesthesia for longer periods. Patient surveys indicate they chose the procedure based on expectations of decreased morbidity, improved outcomes, reduced blood loss and less pain.[2] Higher expectations may explain higher rates of dissatisfaction and regret.[4]

Compared with other minimally invasive surgery approaches, robot-assisted surgery gives the surgeon better control over the surgical instruments and a better view of the surgical site. In addition, surgeons no longer have to stand throughout the surgery and do not tire as quickly. Naturally occurring hand tremors are filtered out by the robot's computer software. Finally, the surgical robot can continuously be used by rotating surgery teams.[5]

Critics of the system, including the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists,[6] say there is a steep learning curve for surgeons who adopt use of the system and that there's a lack of studies that indicate long-term results are superior to results following traditional laparoscopic surgery.[1] Articles in the newly created Journal of Robotic Surgery tend to report on one surgeon's experience.[1]

A Medicare study found that some procedures that have traditionally been performed with large incisions can be converted to "minimally invasive" endoscopic procedures with the use of the Da Vinci Surgical System, shortening length-of-stay in the hospital and reducing recovery times. But because of the hefty cost of the robotic system it is not clear that it is cost-effective for hospitals and physicians despite any benefits to patients since there is no additional reimbursement paid by the government or insurance companies when the system is used.[1]

Robot-assisted pancreatectomies have been found to be associated with "longer operating time, lower estimated blood loss, a higher spleen-preservation rate, and shorter hospital stay[s]" than laparoscopic pancreatectomies; there was "no significant difference in transfusion, conversion to open surgery, overall complications, severe complications, pancreatic fistula, severe pancreatic fistula, ICU stay, total cost, and 30-day mortality between the two groups."[7] For surgical removal of the uterus and cervix for early cervical cancer robotic and laparoscopic surgery resulted in similar outcomes with respect to the cancer.[8]