August 13, 2007 Over the past 100 years modern science has been responsible for some miraculous inventions to aid the delivery of medical treatment such as the x-ray machine, ultra sound technology and the cochlear implant. One of the latest improvements is in the field of robotic surgery, which is redefining the way in which patients undergo procedures. Not to be confused with computer-aided surgery, robotic surgery utilizes the robot to actually perform the manual tasks of the surgery.

Robotic technology is designed to extend the types of procedures that can be performed by minimally invasive surgery to a wider array of patient types. Where human doctors require large open areas to undertake operations, robotic technology offers the clinical and technical capabilities operating through tiny incisions. The numerous benefits to the patient include a reduced risk of infection and blood loss, speedier recovery time and less scarring. Shorter post-operative recovery time in hospital may help to alleviate some overcrowding and waiting times.

One example how far the technology has come is the da Vinci Surgical System fromIntuitive Surgical. The system which is divided into four key elements. The surgeon’s console allows the surgeon to operate the controls with his or her fingers from a seated position. The vision system integrated into the console provides viewing of the surgical field via a 3D image. The patient-side cart comprises three or four robotic arms, two or three instrument arms and one endoscope arm that perform the commands as dictated by the surgeon. Wrist instruments enable the surgeon to perform tasks such as clamping and stitching as they are designed with seven degrees of motion that mimic the dexterity of the human hand and wrist.

One health care facility to recently invest in the da Vinci Surgical System is Capital Health's Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton, Canada. Initially they will use the system primarily for laparascopic radical prostatectomies – a procedure that removes the prostate gland and some surrounding tissue – to treat prostate cancer. "For urology patients, the robot will reduce the risk of impotency and urinary incontinence, and improve outcomes. In addition, robot-assisted radical prostatectomy surgeries can be safely performed on obese patients, who have traditionally required open surgery," says Dr. Mike Hobart, a urologist at the Royal Alexandra Hospital.

The configuration of robotic surgery systems in separate parts means that the surgeon and patient need not even be in the same location. Robots have for some time now delivered proxy healthcare allowing doctors to check up patients from a remote location. This same principle can now be applied to surgery. This is a valuable tool in being able to share specialist skills of certain practitioners without having to travel. Smaller hospitals which are unable to employ specialists across all disciplines of medicine can utilize the services of surgeons at other locations to perform remote surgery.

With so many industries (think car manufacturing) being reliant on automated, non-human systems to complete tasks it makes sense that medicine will follow the same path. Perhaps the next step will be to eliminate the human component of surgery and have robotic technology advance to a phase where it is able to assess a patient and perform the operation entirely unassisted.

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