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Surgical Robots

October 29, 2018

Do you believe that robots could replace doctors? In a way, this futuristic idea is quickly becoming a reality. An increasing number of patients ask for robotic surgery for various procedures; however, that does not mean that doctors will lose their jobs. The surgical technology will need to be overseen by doctors and often will be able to contribute to the surgeon’s role, rather than replace it. The surgical robots increased precision and time efficiency appeal to both patients and doctors alike. Revolutionary biotechnology is also making an impact outside the operating room. It is playing an increasing role in surgery preparation and analysis of current organ conditions. In this way, instead of decreasing the personalization of medical treatment through automated diagnoses and treatment, this new technology actually allows for greater personalization, leading to improved patient results.

One example of technology that assists with surgery preparation is the creation of a personalized computer model of the patient’s heart for better analysis and surgical planning. Heading the project, is Alison Marsden, a professor at University of California, San Diego (Volkers, 2010). One of the major goals of the project is to provide surgeons with spatial context and to help them decide on the best surgical procedure to follow. Her team is specifically analyzing ventricle defects in children and balancing traditional surgical treatment with a newer developed treatment. In addition to providing the information for making this decision, the computer model can also “help surgeons to determine where to disconnect and reconnect blood vessels and the optical angles of connection” (Volkers, 2010). By providing detailed information before the patient even enters the operating room, this technology increases efficiency and safety of the procedure. One can see how this type of modeling is quickly gaining interest in other procedures as well. “We want to be able to customize surgery like you would customize dental implants or an orthopedic device,” claims Marsden (Volkers, 2010).

As for technology used in the operating room, there are various products with different functions and degrees of control being made commercially available. An example of a smaller assistive surgical technology is the MasSpec Pen. Created by Livia Eberlin and her team of researchers, this handheld pen helps detect exactly how far cancerous tumors extend, allowing surgeons to remove the precise amount of tissue in surgery (American Chemical Society, 2019). This plays an important safety role because too much removal can cause health problems while not removing enough can cause the cancer to redevelop, The way it works is simple: the MacSpec Pen is connected to a mass spectrometer, giving an almost instantaneous reporting (under 10 seconds per reading) of molecular profile and thus, cancer detection (American Chemical Society, 2019). It essentially overcomes the tradeoff between speed and accuracy by allowing for both quicker and more precise surgeries.

Beyond surgical tools, robots controlled by surgeons are becoming increasingly popular. The da Vinci Surgical System is one of the most commercialized medical robots, with thousands of them in use around the world (Anandan, 2018). Dr Greg Shaw, for example, at University College Hospital in central London performs pelvic operations through the control of robotic arms, probes, scissors, and hooks (Adams, 2018). The robotic assistance provides better views and maneuverability than traditional surgery. It reduces physical strain on surgeons, and it can even take a 3D recording of the operation. Overall, the surgeries take four times as fast and are minimally invasive, reducing total recovery time for patients (Adams, 2018). These advantages, combined with the improvements in motion control, have made the da Vinci Surgical System a highly respected and desired asset in hospitals. Although the system comes at a high price- about $2 million,- continuous improvement and competition of other surgery robots is gradually driving down the cost. The surgical robot market itself is thriving; researchers project it “to exceed $98 million by 2024,” with a majority attributed to orthopedic surgical robots (Anandan, 2018).

Until big-time surgical robots become the norm, it is predicted that bedside robots will be easier to develop and maintain in hospitals. These robots can do more trivial tasks, such as feeding patients, administering medicine, or assisting with physical therapy (Adams, 2018). This would allow doctors to see more patients without reducing the quality of other patients’ care. In the more distant future, engineers envision the possibility of performing remote operations where the doctor controls the robotic tools from a different location (Adams, 2018). This would be appealing in cases of emergency or warfare, where surgeons are most needed but least available.

Clearly, applications for surgical robots are seemingly limitless. Despite the skeptics and critics, medical technology has proven itself successful. The major challenge for engineers is to now make these robots more cost-effective, in order to make robotic procedures more accessible, both at home and abroad. The end result is the creation of technology that works alongside doctors to help improve the quality of healthcare- without sacrificing personalization of treatment.


Adams, T. 2018 July 29. The robot will see you now: could computers take over medicine

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American Chemical Society. 2019 August 27. 'MasSpec Pen' for accurate cancer detection

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Anandan, T. M. 2018 November 26. Robots and AI in the OR. [Cited 2019 October 17].

Available from: https://www.robotics.org/content-detail.cfm/Industrial-Robotics-


Volkers, N. 2010 December 17. Engineering Solutions to Biomedical Problems. Science

Magazine. [Cited 2019 October 17]. Available from: https://www.sciencemag.org/

careers/2010/12/engineering-solutions-biomedical -problems.