Are robots the future of surgery?

Bryan Ng
21 November 2017

Above: Image © mathisworks, iStockphoto.com

The doctor holds a scalpel. The patient lies unconscious on the operating table. With the scalpel, the doctor expertly makes an incision through the patient’s layers of skin and fat.

You may have seen this on TV. And this was once what real-life surgeries looked like.

But thanks to technology, many things are changing - including medical procedures. Surgery techniques have evolved over time. Let’s learn about some of them, and about the pros and cons of a newer type of surgery: robotic surgery.

Types of surgery

The traditional hand-and-scalpel technique you see in your favourite TV shows is called open surgery. That’s where a surgeon creates a large opening in the body in order to operate.

Meanwhile, minimally invasive surgery is a technique where less of the body is cut open. For example, laparoscopic surgery is a type of minimally invasive procedure. Doctors make a small cut on the body, fit a small camera and instruments in tubes, insert the tubes into the body and use them to operate.

Now, doctors can also use robotic surgery techniques.These are mainly associated with minimally invasive surgery, but can also be used in open surgery.

In minimally invasive robotic surgery, the surgeon makes a small cut on the patient’s body. But instead of controlling instruments through small tubes, the surgeon controls robotic arms with a computer. The robotic arms hold a camera and other surgical instruments. This way, a doctor can see more, be more flexible and operate more precisely.

Why not just stick to open surgeries?

There are lots of benefits for a patient who has minimally invasive surgery instead of open surgery. They typically have less post-surgical complications (like infections), less pain and blood loss, a faster recovery time, and smaller scars.

But robotic minimally invasive surgeries have even more benefits over laparoscopic surgeries. For example, robotic surgical tools may be easier to use than laparoscopic ones. Also, surgeons can control the robot from far away. One Canadian surgeon, Dr. Mehran Anvari, operates on patients in North Bay, Ontario from a setup 400km away in Hamilton, Ontario! In Hamilton, Dr. Anvari is surrounded by TV screens showing both the surgery room and the view of the robotic camera. He’s able to hear the nurses, surgeon and technicians who are with the patient.

Robotic surgeries can be used for a variety of different types of surgeries. Some examples include heart surgery, neurosurgery, and surgeries replacing the hip and knee.

Are there disadvantages to robotic surgery?

Not all surgeons are trained in robotic surgery, and not all hospitals have robotic surgery facilities. Robotic systems are expensive investments for hospitals to buy and to maintain, which is why this surgery might not be available at your local hospital. Robotic surgery takes a long time to set up, which means the surgery itself takes longer. And, of course, there are general surgery risks.

Did you know? In 2014, one robot could cost over $3 million Canadian dollars. It could also cost up to $180 000 a year to maintain!

Finally, robotic surgery might not be the best option for some types of surgery. It’s been proven to be useful for heart surgery, neurosurgery, and surgeries replacing the hip and knee, among others.

Did you know? Although other robotic systems exist, as of 2017 the only Health Canada approved full-scope systems is the da Vinci™ Surgical Systems.

What does the future hold?

Researchers are still figuring out if the benefits of robotic surgery outweigh the costs. Either way, this is an exciting time when doctors, computer scientists, engineers, and other professionals are coming together to create technology and instruments that may be used to improve health care, and society in general. You may soon see robot-assisted surgeries in more and more hospitals - and even on your favorite television shows!

Learn more!

The robotic invasion of Canada (2014)
A. Kapoor, Can. Urol. Assoc. J. 8

Robotic Surgery (2011)
Medline Plus

Robotic Surgery E.J. Moore, Encyclopaedia Britannica

Bryan Ng

Bryan Ng

Originally from Calgary, AB, my passion for science began in high school and lead me to the University of British Columbia where I am currently pursuing a Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD) degree. Science and technology excites me because of the constant evolution and production of ideas. I am particularly interested in neuroscience. It amazes me how the brain stores info and produces the world around us - and also lets me enjoy things such as reading and exercising in my spare time!