Keyhole surgery using robotic arms has transformed medicine. But the next generation of advanced robotics might be able to surpass the skills of surgeons
Neil Thomas wished he could have been awake during the operation to remove a 6cm cancerous tumour from his colon. He was one of the first people to go under the scalpel of Cardiff and Vale University Health Board’s new robotic systems in June 2022. And, as the founder of a software company, the technology interested him.
Thomas’s surgeon, James Ansell, would once have stooped over his patient’s body to perform the operation. Instead, he stood behind a console on another side of the theatre wearing 3D glasses. His hands grasped two joysticks, which controlled the four robotic arms that huddled around Thomas’s unconscious body.
“My colleague said to me the other day that this feels like cheating,” Ansell says. “We’ve done it for so many years: stood at the bedside at an awkward angle, sweating because it’s really physically demanding surgery. [Now,] sitting down, there’s no pressure on the surgeon. It’s very straightforward.”
Robots have revolutionised the practice of surgery since their introduction to operating theatres in 2001. They can now be found in hospitals all across the world. The most prolific device, the Da Vinci, is used in 1.5m operations every year, according to its California-based manufacturer Intuitive Surgical.
Now, combined with AI and other novel technologies, engineers are developing advanced robotics to herald another new era for surgery – and this time, the surgeon’s role in the operating theatre may change altogether.
Although robots are put to a variety of tasks in surgery, their use as a tool in performing laparoscopy – otherwise known as keyhole surgery – has attracted the most attention within and outside medicine. Keyhole surgery reduces the time patients need to recover by operating through smaller incisions. This subsequently reduces the chance that patients catch infections, and so accelerates their recoveries.
By Charlie Metcalfe | The Guardian
Illustration Credit: Philip Lay