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When Surgeons Turn To Robots

Wed, 09/23/2009 - 7:18am
I can’t say that I’m a very experienced surgical patient. The only type of surgery I’ve ever endured was on my thumb a few years back. I had a “mass” removed that turned out to be a ball of broken blood vessels. My surgical experience amounted to a few hours in the OR, four or five stitches and having to wear a dressing on my hand for a week or so. All in all, pretty minor.

I can’t say that I’m a very experienced surgical patient. The only type of surgery I’ve ever endured was on my thumb a few years back. I had a “mass” removed that turned out to be a ball of broken blood vessels. My surgical experience amounted to a few hours in the OR, four or five stitches and having to wear a dressing on my hand for a few days. All in all, pretty minor.

However, I admit that, at the time, it was a little scary. I’d never been put under anesthesia or cut open in any way shape or form. What calmed me down, though, was the care I received from my surgeon, along with all the nurses and OR staff members that I encountered in my short stint in the surgical wing, who personally reassured me everything would be fine.

I’d say, looking back, it was the personal interaction I received from the hospital staff that helped my experience go well. I felt like they’d take care of me—they reassured me they would—and they told me it was okay to be nervous.

So as I read articles about the increasing use of robots to make doctor’s rounds, or telesurgical systems that allow surgeons to operate on their patients in a different room, city, county, state, country, eventually planet, I have mixed emotions.

On one hand, robotics is truly beneficial to patients and surgical staff alike. On the patient side of the equation, robotics in surgery means a less invasive procedure, a shorter stay in the hospital, less risk of complications and above all, a quicker return to normal life.

For surgeons, it allows them to operate on and care for patients even if they can’t be near them. In one article reporting the use of a robot for Army doctors to make rounds when stationed in Iraq, the robot provided a solution for the doctor to still check in on and communicate with patients even though he was actually located thousands of miles way. It provided a sense of comfort for the patient and his family to see the doctor on a screen on the robot.

This telemedicine technology is helping surgeons to make their rounds and check on their patients while also increasing efficiency—allowing more patients to be seen, including some patients who may otherwise have a hard time seeing a doctor at all.

However, there is something to be said for a surgical patient receiving in-person care from his/her surgeon before, during and after surgery. An article by the LA Times reports skeptics of this technology worry it is being used as an “inferior quick fix for doctor and nurse shortages and as a way to save money at patients' expense.”

A robot is able to check vitals and conduct other standard checks of the patient, but it could miss symptoms and issues the doctor may have caught in person. Not to mention that “physical touch remains an important part of the healing process,” experts in the article say.   

There definitely is a place and a need for advancements of robotics in the surgical realm. Whether it’s a telesurgical system that allows surgeons to communicate internationally with each other during a surgery; or the da Vinci system providing surgeons the ability to operate remotely; or a robot with a monitor to help the surgeon communicate with patients thousands of miles away, robotics are providing benefits that continue to enhance surgical capabilities and patient care.

However, the place for this technology is within the standard of care already set for patients in the OR, and as a supplement to the care surgeons give to patients, not a replacement. The value of personal interaction between surgeon and patient cannot be forgotten.

As time-saving and convenient as it may become, surgical professionals cannot turn to robots to do their jobs. They can, however, turn to robots to help do their jobs better.

Are robots helping you do your job better? Tell me about it at amanda.mcgowan@advantagemedia.com

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