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Nurse Jill

The Cutting Edge of Cut Tech

The majority of American citizens have encountered robots on the big screen for decades. While factory assembly lines, self-driving cars, and even the helpful vacuum bot are common robots of the 21st century; most minds still gravitate toward humanoid machines with evolving AI when the term “robot” is discussed. Even the official definition of robot supports the humanoid stereotype.

Medicine has always leaned toward the cutting edge (pun intended). There have always been (and always will be) groups of healthcare workers that diligently look for better ways to take care of patients and to find more effective treatments. The world of medicine has evolved tremendously over the last 100 years. And even though medicine has always been a bit exciting and ever changing, the last 20 years have arguably been some of the most exciting yet, because we have seen the development of robots. The robots used in the medical world are nothing like what we have seen on the big screen.

The first surgery that was aided by a ‘robot’ was actually in 1985. This first robot was simply a pre-programmed single arm. Many concurrent uses and models were also single arm units. It wasn’t until the 20th century gave way to the year 2000 that robots came to resemble what is now commonplace in operating rooms around the world.

What the medical world refers to as robots are actually termed as “computer-assisted surgical systems” by the FDA. The term “robotically-assisted surgical devices” is also used.

So, what exactly do “robots” in the medical world do? And, more importantly, not do? The technology advancement is amazing. Those that appreciate it most are those that have done surgery “old school” for years and see these devices making difficult tasks easier and more effective.

The majority of robotic assistance to the medical world is seen in the operating room. Each specialty has developed its own special robotic approach that boasts benefits to the patient and to the surgeon.

In surgeries that involve the abdomen, the pelvis, or the chest, surgeons use an assistive device that utilizes robot arms at the patient bedside. These robot arms hold specialized instruments that allow for a much greater range of motion as well as more precise movements during delicate parts of the procedure. A camera is among the tools that are connected on these arms. The robot camera is unique in that it allows the surgeon to see in 3-D from their vantage point. The surgeon sits at a control station in the operating room but usually in a corner that has room for the console. They utilize special joysticks that loop around their fingers for them to precisely control the movements of the robot arms. They also utilize special foot pedals to give them even more control over what the robot does.

The robots in the operating room have no intelligence of their own unlike their big screen counterparts who often have a mind gone haywire. The surgeon controls every motion of the arms. The robot only does what the surgeon tells it to do.

Another place ‘robots’ show up in surgery is in orthopedics. In spine surgery a surgeon can program the ideal pathway for necessary screws to be inserted into the bone. The assistive device will merge pre-surgical x-rays with in-surgery x-rays to show the surgeon the exact angle that needs to be taken to achieve that ideal location. Prior to this computer assisted navigation, surgeons would have to take x-ray after x-ray to continually confirm the screw was headed in the direction that was best. While x-rays are still used to confirm placement, the process is much swifter and allows for a degree of precision that was formerly difficult. The surgeon controls all movements of the machine.

In total joint surgeries some surgeons use a computer assistive device to plan the joint hardware. Again using pre-surgical x-rays and in-surgery data the surgeon can plot how much bone to take from the existing joint in order to make room for the new components that will help a patient regain mobility and reduce pain from badly worn bone. This again can allow for a level of precision that is helpful in dealing with nuances that occur in every case.

There are many applications of robots in the medical world. It is fascinating and impressive what researchers have ventured into and found to be successful. A lot of hours, effort, and, yes, money have gone into the research and perfection of these technologies. Just as medicine today looks a whole lot different that it did in 1924, the medicine of tomorrow will continue to change, becoming better still.

The take-away is that robots don’t have to incite fear or uncertainty if your surgeon suggests utilizing one for your surgery. It even has the possibility of improving your experience. Just like any invasive procedure you should have a good long chat with your surgeon about risks and benefits before making decisions but don’t let Hollywood representations of wacky AI influence your understanding of the ‘robot’ in surgery. Robots really are the cutting edge of cut tech.


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