The phrase ”robodoc” has been a staple of science fiction for years. But, in an age of tele-medicine and advanced robotics, the future is arriving fast. With autonomous surgeons ready to perform operations from the battlefield to the hospital, dental surgery or doctor’s office they will save money, time and patients’ lives.
The robotic surgeons will see you now
Some 20 years ago, surgeons used early broadband networks to demonstrate heart surgery techniques over digital video feeds sent around the world. As online meeting systems improved, these sessions became online discussions and conferences, helping improve techniques and understanding.
More recently, remote-controlled surgery systems have enabled a surgeon on one continent to perform an operation on another. Using a web connection to save time and resources. With expertise spreading, all this information and skill is rapidly becoming available in a single autonomous robotic surgeon.
The advantages see our future robotic surgeons working on a production line. They can perform the same surgery, such as cataract removal, sutures, appendectomies and increasingly complex tasks. The risks are that, as with most technology, hard-pressed hospitals could start to overly rely on them in coming decades. We will likely see a reduction in ancillary staff or a human surgeon who could step in when something goes wrong.
Let the operation begin
Robotic surgeons are popping up all over place, as they break out of the research labs into teaching hospitals and some commercial practices. In China, where there is a shortage of dentists to service the huge population, a robotic dentist recently performed a totally autonomous implant, using another modern development, 3D printed teeth.
Human surgeons provided all the data such as angles and depth detail, but in future a robot will be able to gain that information from x-rays and scans automatically. Hopefully, it can manage the right levels of anesthesia too!
Closer to home, a robot undergoing trials at Nebraska Medical Center removed a thyroid gland tumor from a patient’s neck. Piloted by a surgeon, the robot improves magnification of the gland and provides greater control over the surgical tools. It reduces the risk of tremors, shakes and tiredness while improving accuracy when removing the tumor.
The procedure takes a little longer than if a human performed it manually. But with this relatively common cancer, sooner or later a robot will be able to work unaided and more people can be treated.
Battling to save lives
While most people can wait for a doctor or surgeon, battlefield surgery requires immediate treatment, within the golden hour to increase a soldier’s chances of survival. As this, rather old, DARPA video shows, by 2025 robotic MASH unit APCs could provide support on the battlefield to perform immediate medical attention before the patient is whisked away to a proper facility.
Currently, US Army surgeons use telepresence and remote control to perform operations from distance. With systems like Da Vinci, the current state of the art, capable of performing increasingly complex operations, it won’t be long before the medical professionals can be safe at home while treating soldiers or civilian casualties in war zones on the other side of the world.
Da Vinci is in use around the world across Europe and India as the need to meet patient demand rises fast. In Florida, a similar system, Titan’s Sport Surgical System can perform minimally invasive operations including gynecologic, colorectal and urologic procedures through just one incision. Again, a surgeon controls the action from a workstation, but as the field of AI grows, the robots should soon be able to perform tasks on their own.
The benefits of automated surgery
With patients at their most vulnerable, they will still need a human hand to calm them and lots of reassurance to help them consider robotic surgery, even when it becomes commonplace. The benefits that can help sell it include smaller incisions, creating less trauma and helping faster recovery times, improved accuracy, less chance of mistakes or human error.
With an earlier release from the hospital that can free up expensive intensive care beds, costs can be kept down, along with a reduced need for addictive painkillers.
Do remember though that the first ever robotic appendix removal just took place in 2016, so the technology has a long way to go before it is available in every hospital, but within 20 years many procedures could be faster, more accurately performed and less costly.