Yes, robots are now used to operate on people.
This is no “Brave New World” sort of sci-fi exploration of manipulating predispositions in order to create an ideal human race, but it is a new way to operate on patients in a minimally invasive manner.
How is the da Vinci Robot used?
Unlike robots used in other industries, the da Vinci Surgical System cannot be used without an operator directing each action. In essence, it allows the surgeon to perform the same operations with more precise control and vision than can be achieved through traditional surgical methods, according to the da Vinci surgery website.
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The da Vinci uses 3-D, high-definition vision combined with EndoWrist instruments and intuitive motion to provide the surgeon with a more detailed and controlled way of operating.
Currently, the da Vinci is used in urology, gynecology, cardiothoracic surgery, colorectal surgery as well as head and neck surgery, according to the da Vinci surgery website. The robot utilizes principles used in laparoscopic surgery, which is the use of multiple, smaller incisions, to be performed with even more accuracy and smaller incisions than ever before.
“By eliminating a major incision into the abdomen, it creates minimally invasive surgical procedures,” Dr. John Paul Isbell, a gynecologist with 30-years experience, said. The da Vinci does not do anything by itself, rather it gives the surgeon the ability to do their job more accurately.
“It will not create a good surgeon out of a mediocre surgeon,” Isbell added. Isbell has been using the da Vinci for three years.
So while the da Vinci is a robot, a more accurate way to think of it is as a tool leading to advances in surgery.
The Technology makes a Difference
The most substantial difference the da Vinci makes is in the recovery process. The exactness that can only be achieved through robotics allows the surgeon to make many small incisions rather than one large incision, which leads to a quicker recovery time, according to the da Vinci surgery website.
The quicker recovery time involves less pain and less scarring than traditional surgery, and even laparoscopic surgery. In Isbell’s experience, this innovation “changes recovery from four to six weeks to one to three weeks for patients, reduces blood loss so transfusions are almost never necessary, [and] minimizes hospital stays.”
Overall, the da Vinci has led to improving the quality of life for patients who undergo surgery that would otherwise have been invasive.
Becoming da Vinci Qualified
But how does a surgeon who has operated one way their entire career switch from one method of surgery to another?
Firstly, the training begins with “learning how the robot functions using inanimate objects,” Isbell said. “Once that skill is demonstrated you would proceed to an animal laboratory to work on live tissue. Following that, you are proctored by an experienced robotic surgeon who simply observes your ability and does not necessarily instruct you on how to perform the surgery.”
It is important to note that this training does not involve teaching surgery, just teaching a new way to practice traditional surgeries.
Are There any Downsides?
So far, the da Vinci has been used with enormous success. However, “mistakes are made by training low-volume surgeons or training surgeons who simply do not have the knack for this sort of remote surgery,” Isbell said.
One of the concerns about this new tool is that it is used in smaller hospitals that don’t have enough surgeries or experienced surgeons to make it a viable tool. In these smaller hospitals, the lack of varied cases leads to an inability to adapt to this new method and therefore, more mistakes.
“One complaint about the company is encouraging use of the robot in smaller hospitals where they may not have enough surgical volume to make it a beneficial tool,” Isbell said.
When used in the proper context, however, this new innovation is the next frontier of surgery. This frontier is not one that eliminates the minds of surgeons behind the operation, but it enhances human ability past what could be achieved with a hand and scalpel.
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