What Is Robotic Surgery and Is It Better?

Robotic Surgery Is Becoming More Common

Da Vinci Robotic Surgery, Robotic Surgery
The Da Vinci Robot. © 2009 Intuitive Surgical, Inc.

Question: What Is Robotic Surgery and Is It Better?


What is Robotic Surgery?

Robotic surgery is just what it sounds like, surgery performed by a robot. Don’t misunderstand, the surgeon hasn’t been replaced by a robot exactly, the surgeon controls the robot. Technically speaking, the robot assists the surgeon with the procedure.  Most robots are controlled remotely by the surgeon, with multiple cameras, so the surgeon can sit in a room adjoining the operating room and perform the surgery that way.


In the future, we may see patients having surgery at a remote location performed by a surgeon who cannot be present. Patients in rural areas, especially in countries without access to the healthcare we enjoy in the United States, could potentially benefit from surgery performed by a specialist many miles away.

Why Robotic Surgery?

The robot “filters” the tiny tremors that occur in even the steadiest surgeon’s hands, making the movement desired by the doctor, but with a precision that human hands are not capable of. Robots aren’t appropriate for all surgeries, however, for some procedures a robot can offer a remarkable improvement over the standard operative technique. The ideal procedures for the use of a robot are typically ones that require extremely small movements by the surgeon. Neurosurgery (brain and spinal cord) procedures are an example of surgeries that can benefit from the robot, sparing extremely sensitive tissues.

A millimeter decrease in the movement of a scalpel can make a tremendous difference in the surgical outcome because it means that nerves and delicate tissues can be spared. Brain surgery is one example of the type of procedures that could potentially be dramatically improved, because the tiniest changes in an incision can spare brain cells and nerves.


Robotic Prostate Surgery

One surgery that has shown dramatically improved outcomes since the implementation of robotic techniques is prostate surgery. The robot is instrumental in sparing the nerves that allow the patient to obtain and maintain an erection after prostate surgery in a greater percentage of cases than was possible before the robot.

Sparing nerves in robotic prostate surgery has the added benefit of preventing long term urinary incontinence in many cases.  Some men have to deal with being unable to control their urine for months or even permanently after surgery.  As the surgery is improved by robotic technology, many men experience a quick or immediate ability to control their urine flow, which dramatically improves their quality of life. 

Why Not Robotic Surgery?

Robots are extremely expensive. The most popular system currently, The Da Vinci Surgical Robot, is approximately 2 million dollars to purchase and install.  This does not include the additional training required by surgeons and surgical staff to correctly use the robot.

Due to the expense, the system is typically found in the largest teaching hospitals and other large facilities. 


Comparing Robotic Versus Open Prostate Surgery. Henry Ford Health System. Accessed August, 2009. http://www.henryfordhealth.org/19085.cfm

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