The most widely used robotic system in the U.S. is Intuitive Surgical’s da Vinci. The FDA first approved a da Vinci in 2000 and has cleared newer models since then. Today, more than 7,500 da Vinci surgical systems are in use in 69 countries across six continents.
Dozens of other companies have entered the game. Advances in materials science are driving soft, flexible designs that can navigate winding pathways or operate on some of the body’s most delicate tissues.
Auris Health’s Monarch, a flexible robotic endoscopic system, enters through the mouth into the trachea and bronchial passages to examine potentially cancerous tissue in the lungs. The platform recently earned a urological clearance for kidney stone removal. Other flexible robots enter the rectum and travel through intestines, as for colonoscopy. Still others snake through the nose to reach the brain, or the thigh’s femoral vein to get to the heart.
An upgrade of Stryker’s Mako robot, currently used for hip and knee replacements, will enable its use in spine and shoulder surgery and could launch as early as next year. (The doctors interviewed for this article are not promoting or endorsing any products mentioned.)
Meanwhile, artificial intelligence, or AI, is letting researchers and developers make robots more autonomous, capable of performing surgical subtasks or even entire surgical procedures.
“It is an exciting time,” said Michael Yip, PhD, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, and director of the Advanced Robotics and Controls Laboratory, at the University of California San Diego. “The diversity of robotic technologies is really widening exponentially.”
Benefits for Patients
Data shows that robotic surgery can help reduce bleeding, scarring, and recovery time, and it allows for shorter hospital stays, compared to traditional surgery.
One of the most striking benefits: Many patients, like Pollack, do not need opioids – or any painkillers, for that matter. That’s remarkable when you consider the norm.
For kidney transplant, “it’s 100% narcotic use after an open transplant,” said Thomas Pshak, MD, a robotic kidney and liver transplant surgeon at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital. Open surgery patients go home with as much as a week’s supply of opioids, and sometimes need morphine or oxycodone in an IV after surgery.