Many hospitals around the country are advertising robotic surgery as a means of attracting patients to their facilities, as robotic surgery represents state-of-the art technology to consumers who seek quality medical services. The truth is robots have been used to perform surgeries since the mid-1980s. Perhaps the most widely known robotic surgery, performed for several decades, is abdominal or gallbladder surgery, where a video camera and long-handled surgical instruments on a tube are inserted through a small incision. With the aid of a video monitor, human surgeons watch the magnified images as they guide the instruments.
But do robots make better surgeons than humans? Robots are merely computerized systems, with arms capable of interacting within an environment. They assist surgeons who sit at control consoles that display three-dimensional images on video screens and allow the surgeons, using computer controls, to easily maneuver the surgical instruments inside the body. Currently, more than 800 hospitals across America and Europe offer some type of robotic surgery for prostate cancer, hysterectomy, and heart surgeries. Although widely used, robotic surgeries present advantages and disadvantages.
Some advantages of robotic surgery are that most procedures are simpler, minimally invasive with less pain and scarring, as incisions are smaller than those in traditional surgery. Recovery periods are generally shorter as healing is faster, so hospital stays are shorter, by about 50%, than those associated with conventional surgery. However, some studies have shown that recovery times for laparoscopic prostate surgery are about the same for both traditional and robotic surgery, with no real improvement in functional outcome, i.e. impotence or urinary functions.
While there are distinct advantages to robotic surgery, there are several disadvantages patients should understand. First, there is a good deal of time required for a surgeon to master the technology involved with robotic surgery: there is a steep learning curve. The high cost of buying and operating the equipment, $1million and up, makes these devices unaffordable to smaller hospitals, and the cost of a surgery may be higher than a conventional procedure. There is less space for health care professionals to assist in the operating room, as the cart holding the device occupies a good deal of space. Finally, some surgeons feel hindered by the lack of tactile sensation, as the natural feel of operating is lost.
While health care facilities and manufacturers of robotic devices are heavily promoting robotic surgery, more research is needed to compare the benefits of conventional vs. robotic surgery. Patients should educate themselves about the risks and benefits of each type of surgery and chose a physician who has performed many procedures using robots.