February 27, 2014

Recently, Baptist Health South Florida’s Center for Robotic Surgery showed us just how much robots on the surgical floor could do, showing off not only a prostatectomy, but also a hysterectomy and a myomectomy besides, all in one day, and all done by robots. A new study from Frost & Sullivan, meanwhile, shows that this isn’t likely to be a unique situation too much longer, however, as robots on the surgical floor are likely to only get more visible in the near future.

The Frost & Sullivan study in question, titled “Innovations in Medical Robotics,” made note of two critical points: one, the overall market was top-heavy, with the biggest participants in the field having the large patent libraries along with the better technology. Two, there were a growing number of smaller participants in the field, all of which were rapidly working toward new discoveries in the field overall. That’s giving surgical robotics many different fields in which to operate, and is being worked on by many different players in the market.

But there’s a limit to how fast these players can get product into the field, thanks to serious issues like the sheer length of research and development required, the difficulty inherent in manufacturing such devices, and the array of government regulation that’s involved in bringing out new medical devices to the field.  Additionally, there’s also a matter of the surgical robots in particular; said robots are commonly large in overall dimensions. This is a development that surgical robotics makers are said to be working on, as well as on plans to reduce the invasive nature of robot-driven surgery.

Interestingly, the global demand for robotic surgery is almost precisely paralleling the offerings for live surgical cases at Baptist Health South: prostatectomy and hysterectomy surgeries. Reports from Roshan Verghese, a technical insights research analyst, suggest robots are particularly valued in these surgeries because of improved precision and accuracy, which in turn yields greater safety. Additionally, these same characteristics are likely to make surgical robots more valuable overall as more hospitals and patients become aware of the option of robotic surgery, and an aging population overall should drive up the total demand for surgery. However, some have noted that there hasn’t been much in the way of randomized trials and comparison systems to see just how well the surgical robot is doing right now. Some might respond in kind, suggesting that the robotic surgeon has been getting a sort of “trial by fire,” but this point is somewhat subjective.

It’s a reasonable enough conclusion: the aging population will be needing more surgeries in order to save lives and address failing parts that is largely an inevitable consequence of age. While the overall effectiveness of robot surgeons, meanwhile, is a bit on the subjective side itself, relying at least somewhat on anecdotal evidence, the basic idea does remain that the robot surgeon can cut back on surgeon fatigue, perform to greater efficiency, and even reduce post-surgical recovery times for patients, which in turn has its own economic impact.

When some surgeries performed by a human being require a 12-inch incision, and the equivalent by a robot requires a four inch incision, it’s easy to say which incision will heal faster.  While there’s still a way to go yet before the robotic doctor is as ubiquitous as its human equivalent, there’s plenty of reason to continue the research and development, and get such developments into the field.


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