Robot-assisted surgery sounds futuristic, but chances are, someone in your circle of friends already knows someone who has undergone surgery with robot assistance. The term “robot-assisted” here is currently broad, referring both to surgeries autonomously taken on by smart robots, and surgeries conducted by human surgeons with the help of complicated external machines.
Either way, robot-assisted surgery is still a relatively new and rare type of procedure. So when, if ever, could it become the “new normal” for surgery?
The State of Robot Surgery
Let’s start by taking a look at the current state of robot-assisted surgery. What technologies currently exist, and how are they developing?
- The da Vinci robot. One of the most advanced robots used for surgery today is the da Vinci robot, a four-armed machine with onboard instruments that allows a human surgeon full remote control during an operation. The machine gives surgeons the chance to get a better visual on previously difficult-to-see areas, and allows them a higher degree of precision, due to the stability and sensitivity of the machine. Patients undergoing surgery with the da Vinci robot see lower levels of pain, and have shorter hospital stays.
- The Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot (STAR). Another example of modern robot-assisted surgery tech is the Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot (STAR). The STAR is a machine capable of autonomously making incisions ordinarily done by a human surgeon; in at least one set of experiments, STAR was shown to be capable of making more precise cuts than human experts, resulting in less damage of the surrounding flesh. So far, the system has been used to perform operations on pig organs, but is not yet ready for full human surgery.
- Autonomous dental surgery. China is also making progress in the line of robot-assisted surgery, with one of its robots 3D printing and autonomously fitting two dental implants in a volunteer patient’s mouth. Human dental professionals were on standby, observing the procedure and ready to step in if something went wrong, but the operation was successful without any human intervention.
- Eye surgery. Recently, scientists from MIT built small robots that assist in laser eye surgery.
There are multiple factors pushing for the development and adoption of more robot-assisted surgeries:
- Robots are capable of operating on patients with greater precision. That increased precision means patients will suffer less tissue damage during the procedure, and there will be a decreased risk of complications. Patients can recover faster, suffer less pain after the procedure, and leave the hospital sooner to return to their daily lives.
- Automated robotic surgery tools are also more reliable than their human counterparts; because they’re programmed to behave a specific way and make specific cuts, they’re less likely to deviate from that path, even by accident. Machines aren’t affected by exhaustion or altered mind states, either, and will not deteriorate with age (so long as they’re properly maintained).
- Job pressure relief. We’re in the early stages of a crisis-level medical professional shortage; by 2030, it’s estimated that the United States alone will face a shortage of more than 100,000 doctors. Incorporating more machines and automation in the medical field is a way of proactively protecting against this potential threat, ensuring more patients can get the care they need.
- Cost-effectiveness. Though robotic surgical assistants are currently expensive, once they become easier to create and manufacture, they could be far more cost-effective than hiring new staff members.
However, there are also some fears holding progress back:
- Consumer trust. Patients need to agree to having robotic-assisted surgery performed on them. Significant consumer distrust (or preferences for human surgeons) could delay the adoption and use of these machines in hospitals.
- Initial cost. For now, robotic surgery tools are expensive; a da Vinci robot, for example, costs around $2 million. Not all hospitals will be willing to make that investment, especially if they have a full team of surgeons on call.
- Robotic assistance isn’t available for all types of surgery (yet), and the capabilities of fully automated procedures are currently limited. This restricts the number of potential applications for modern robots.
It’s estimated that the robotic systems market will nearly double from its size of $3.3 billion in 2014 to more than $6.4 billion by 2020. Tech companies, medical professionals, and even the bulk of consumers are on board with making this a reality, so it’s inevitable that the industry is going to grow.
But as for when robot-assisted surgery becomes mainstream, or when it’s rarer to find a human surgeon than it is to find a robotic surgeon? That’s harder to project. Our current technology is only partially autonomous, and it’s only useful for a few dozen types of surgeries. Though researchers and engineers are working tirelessly to expand capabilities here, it will likely be at least several years—probably a decade or longer—before robotic surgeries become that commonplace.
|This article was contributed by fellow NYU students. If you would like to make a contribution to the NYU Dispatch, please email us.|