Your Next Surgeon Could Be a Robot

Alexa, pass the scalpel?

Key Takeaways

  • Robots can do everything from brain surgery to making tiny incisions almost smaller than the eye can see.
  • The field of robotic surgery is growing, though robotics only represents 10 percent of the general surgery market in the US.
  • Using robots, surgeons may one day even be able to operate from across the world.
Members of the Johns Hopkins Robotics Club, gathered in a room with a robotic da Vinci Surgical System
JHU Sheridan Libraries / Gado / Getty Images

Imagine a doctor that never gets tired or has a bad day, and has six arms. Meet the robotic surgeon, a real device that’s working in an operating room near you.

Controlled by human surgeons working either nearby or remotely, these robots can do everything from brain surgery to making tiny incisions almost smaller than the eye can see. Recent advances in the field of robotic surgery mean these automatons will be able to take on more procedures than ever before, experts say. 

"Just like self-driving cars, robots could be doing the whole surgery one day for certain types of procedures," Dr. Gavin Britz, chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery at Houston Methodist Hospital, said in a phone interview. "But I think in the near future that robots will be used in all major surgeries."

Machines of Tomorrow

The field of robotic surgery is growing, analysts say. Currently, robotics represents only 10% of the general surgery market in the U.S., and less than 1% outside the U.S., Anton Gopka, CEO and general partner of the life sciences venture firm ATEM Capital, said in an email interview. 

"But rapidly accelerating innovation will be driving exponential growth in the robotics market," he said. Currently valued at over $3 billion, the robotic surgery market is expected to surpass $7 billion by 2025, according to iData Research.

A new model of surgical robot made by Johnson & Johnson, called Ottava, is an example of advances in the field. Ottava has six arms to provide more control and flexibility. "Having more degrees of freedom can really make a difference and makes it easier to do more complicated work," Britz said of Ottava. 

With the help of Ottava, "doctors can access and treat very challenging anatomy in the most minimally invasive way," Gopka said. "For instance, with these types of solutions, doctors can biopsy a lung cancer tumor as well as treat it with energy and localized drugs all in the same day."

The closest analogy to surgical robots like Ottava is power steering in your car, Bruce Lichorowic, president and CEO of surgical robot manufacturer Galen Robotics, said in an email interview. 

"You still remain in control: you make your desired turns all the while being aided by power `assisted' steering," Lichorowic said. "Now if you go one step further, Tesla cars not only offer power steering, now you can get `auto-driving assistance' that keeps your car in your lane, can slow you down or stop you. This is similar to what surgical robots offer surgeons. The ability to navigate, stay in safety zones, start and stop, all with tremendous accuracy."

More Precision = Fewer Side Effects

One example of the advantages that robots offer in surgery is in prostate surgery, Lichorowic said. In the past, the removal of a cancerous prostate involved the cutting of some nerves because they’re entangled with the prostate, causing side effects including impotence. 

"Surgeons over the past decade and a half are now using the da Vinci for robotic-assisted laparoscopic prostatectomies to carefully untangle the nerves from the prostate, eliminating the bad side effects," he added. "This nerve-sparing technique for radical prostatectomy surgery has now become the gold standard for surgery that before only could be performed by a few gifted surgeons free-hand."

Surgeons operate a da Vinci Surgical robot to remove the tumor at the First Affiliated Hospital of Sun Yat-sen University
VCG / VCG / Getty Images

In spinal surgery, robots are used to place pedicle screws used for fusion procedures. During a recent complex deformity surgery on a patient in Beverly Hills, Calif., a robot helped place instruments. 

"This could be done in a traditional fashion, but the efficiency and accuracy were improved by the use of the robot," Dr. Edward Nomoto of DOCS Spine + Orthopedics said in an email interview. "In the future, robotic surgery will aid with decompressing nerves and the spinal cord. It will also help assist with placement of interbody fusion devices as well as disc replacement surgery."

Linking Man and Machine

Robots can make incisions and insert instruments far more delicately than any human hand, experts say. Gopka pointed to Elon Musk’s nascent brain-computer tech called Neuralink as one area where robotic surgery’s precision could come in handy in the future.

"The Neuralink robot uses its cameras and sensors to insert the wires—which measure a quarter of the diameter of a human hair—into the brain while avoiding vasculature to a depth of up to six millimeters," Gopka said. "As the project evolves, more wires may be needed and it is not a scalable procedure for a human surgeon."

Surgeons operate a da Vinci Surgical robot at the First Affiliated Hospital of Sun Yat-sen University
VCG / VCG / Getty Images

Using robots, surgeons may one day even be able to operate from across the world. Last year, Siemens Healthineers bought Corindus Vascular Robotics for $1.1 billion. Corindus is the developer of a robot-assisted device that is FDA-cleared for coronary and peripheral vascular procedures. 

"They recently demonstrated that a physician could use a robotic system in a manner necessary to open a blocked artery despite being 3,000 miles away," Gopka said. "This study suggests it may eventually be possible for interventional cardiologists to use robotic technology to perform coronary procedures safely and effectively from any one point to another, anywhere in the country, with the help of 5G networks."

Within the next decade, patients will see breakthroughs in robotics incorporating AI and autonomous robots, predicts Lichorowic. AI will help surgeons recognize disease tissue, and "recommend to surgeons the best path forward to during the surgery," he said.

Robots may not be quite ready to take on entire surgeries by themselves. But the day is getting closer when they could be doing a lot more work on the operating table.

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