Robotics Shifts Modern Surgery Paradigm

Thomas Payne, M.D., Executive Medical Director of the Texas Institute for Robotic Surgery, St. David’s North Austin Medical Center
Thomas Payne, M.D., Executive Medical Director of the Texas Institute for Robotic Surgery, St. David’s North Austin Medical Center

Thomas Payne, M.D., Executive Medical Director of the Texas Institute for Robotic Surgery, St. David’s North Austin Medical Center

Not that long ago, the idea that a robot could amplify a surgeon’s ability to operate on patients was a new concept to surgeons unfamiliar with computer-enhanced surgery.

Fast-forward to 2019. Now almost every type of surgery can be performed using some type of computer-enhanced platform. More than 34 companies create technology that improves our ability to see inside the human body(much like the 1966 film “Fantastic Voyage” without the shrunken submarine crew). Surgeons can make a small incision, and in some cases, no incision, to perform surgery. For example, pulmonary robots allow surgeons to snake through the trachea to the periphery of the lungs.What was once considered science fiction has become our reality in the 21stcentury.

The healthcare industry is undergoing a fundamental shift in concepts about surgery. With the availability of robotic platforms, we hope to methodically remove the variability in a surgeon’s judgment and skill set. To be clear, robotics will never replace a surgeon, but using such tools can decrease the chances of having a negative outcome. We have the potential to make surgery more standard across the board with fewer opportunities to fail.

The airline industry offers a great analogy for this fundamental shift. In its infancy, plane crashes occurred more than today. Over time, computer enhancements to navigation tools have allowed air traffic controllers and pilots to better navigate the skies, resulting in fewer errors and more efficient travel.

Robotic platforms have the same approach to surgery. Surgeons trained in robotics are able to more accurately navigate a patient’s anatomy through a small incision. This can result in reduced blood loss, less time in the hospital and quicker recovery times for patients.

Investments in technology and training for surgeons can reap great rewards—not just for the patient, but also for the healthcare industry as a whole. By reducing the length of surgery and the patient’s hospitalization, overall costs decrease as well.

In 20 years, computer enhanced surgery performed remotely may standardize surgery even further. Currently, the furthest distance to operate effectively is several hundred yards from a patient. Imagine taking a surgeon’s expertise across state lines. The main challenges we face today are the social and regulatory hurdles to make this possible.

The argument that artificial intelligence could one day take over our jobs may be true for some industries. In the healthcare industry, nothing can replace human judgment and compassion. Robots, or computer enhanced surgery, is merely a tool to help us improve outcomes.