Will Robots Replace Surgeons?

Imagine it. A world of self-driving cars, skies filled with drones and robots carrying out procedures in the Operating Room. Back to the Future dystopian future or the world as we know it? Self-driving cars are here. And the drones are already popping up, literally (thanks Amazon). As for robots replacing surgeons; it could happen, but probably not any time soon.

Robots Are Already Operating

While surgeons don’t need to be worried about job sharing with robot co-workers, robotic surgery is already taking place in hospitals across the world.

Before you let your imagination go wild imagining an army of robot doctors zooming around a hospital or ASC, operating at will, we’re here to put your sci-fi fantasies to rest. Surgical robots are not operating independently. Yet, what they are doing is increasingly helping surgeons to operate more effectively.

Although the current generation of robots are highly specialized machines, they are still controlled by a highly skilled doctor. What they can do, though, is give their human overlord (aka, the surgeon), a kind of remote bionic arm or superhuman eye. Even if the robot doctor army is still the stuff of dreams, it’s already pretty awesome.

One robot surgeon on the market is the da Vinci surgical system from Intuitive Surgical. This robo-helper is no rookie doctor. It has been part of the surgical arsenal for almost 20 years.

The da Vinci system boosts human capabilities by giving users high-definition 3D vision, a magnified view, robotic and computer assistance and specialized instrumentation. These include a miniaturized surgical camera designed to help with precise dissection and reconstruction deep inside the body.

Why Do We Need Robots In The OR?

One of the advantages robots have over humans is that they’re robots. A robot never has a late night. It never has an argument before coming to work. It doesn’t have a weekend with the in-laws to deal with, errands to run or bills to pay. It always has its (computer) mind on the job.

Humans surgeons are, well, they’re human, with occasional human failings.

Surgeon Versus Robot

There are those who believe that operations in which a robot assists the surgeon are better for the patient than conventional surgery.

According to UC Health, using a robot can minimize blood loss, reduce post-operative time – which means a shorter hospital stay in some cases (can you hear the insurance companies celebrating in the background?), lower the need for narcotic pain medicine and carry out the procedure with extreme precision, which can save healthy tissue from damage. Score one to the robots.  

Other studies show there is no benefit to using robots, and in fact, it only makes the surgery more expensive. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association compared the use of robotic-assisted surgery versus laparoscopic surgery for extensive kidney procedures. According to an article in Reuters that examined the survey, the robotic-assisted surgeries did not necessarily yield better results and had similar rates of major complications.

The Robots Are Defeated

While robots are slowly creeping their way into the OR for various purposes, (let’s say it again, bionic arm!), and even a Society of Robotic Surgery exists – advocating for robotic assistance, a robot anesthesiologist designed by Johnson & Johnson was swiftly sent packing to the scrap heap.

The company developed the futuristically named Sedasys machine to give an anesthetic to patients undergoing routine surgeries such as endoscopies, colonoscopies and esophagogastroduodenoscopies.

The machine administered drugs while monitoring the patient’s vital signs – and it did its job well. Actually, it did it a little too well according to worried anesthesiologists who saw their livelihood disappearing before their eyes and who campaigned against the machine even before the sleep-inducing robot hit the market. Despite the Sedasys machine only being FDA-approved for routine surgery, anesthesiologists were horrified to think their years of training could be easily replaced by a machine.

In the end, poor sales ultimately led to the death of the machine and anesthesiologists continue to rule the OR. The American Society of Anesthesiologists may have cause to celebrate, but the robots actually beat the anesthesiologists hands down – on price. Being put to sleep by a robot is cheap, to the tune of a tenth of the cost of a human anesthesiologist per procedure – $150-$200 compared to $2000 (cue the insurance companies crying in the background).

Using Robots For Routine Procedures

Unlike the anesthesiologists, surgeons are realizing the benefits of outsourcing some of the, dare we say it, less exciting bits of surgery to robots. In 2016, a team from Children’s National Medical Center in Washington were the first to show how a supervised autonomous robot could perform soft-tissue surgery. Known as STAR (Smart-Tissue Autonomous Robot), the machine outperformed a human surgeon in stitching together a pig’s bowel during open surgery (although it took a lot longer than a human surgeon – 50 minutes compared to eight). STAR uses 3D imaging and sensing technology to help with its vision and precision.

Peter Kim, associate surgeon in chief at the hospital and project lead on STAR said the technology was not to replace surgeons tomorrow but to “provide collective experiences of how things should be done.”

The Robots Are Coming, But Surgeons Are Here To Stay

So there you have it. Robots are unlikely to lock surgeons out of the operating room any time soon. But they are increasingly likely to help surgeons perform surgery better. We call that good news for anyone awaiting surgery.  

VP Marketing | + posts

Laura brings a wealth of experience to Surgimate, having spent over seven years heading the marketing at Mavim, a leading company in the field of process management and mining.

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