Robots as Doctors

The number of robot-assisted devices has exploded. Last year, 360,000 procedures were robot-assisted around the globe, up 29% from 2010, according to Intuitive Surgical, the sole manufacturer of surgical robots. As of early this year, more than 1,500 robots were installed in the U.S.

Whether the influx of robots in our operating rooms benefits patients remains uncertain. Of the few studies that have compared robotic surgery head-to-head with a traditional, minimally invasive approach, there was no clear benefit from using the robot.

More on surgical robots in USA Today.

Comments (9)

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  1. Alex says:

    I would never trust a surgical robot.

    My father’s co-worker had one used to remove a tumor once, and the mechanism in the robot’s arm malfunctioned. Let’s just say that it ended up cutting far more than the tumor. The details are too gruesome to get into in polite company, suffice to say his heart stopped 3 times during the surgery and he still faces medical complications from the damage it did to him. He is now trying to get the hospital to pay for the cost of his complications, in addition to the chemotherapy his still has to go through because of the botched surgery, but the hospital is denying liability.

    If someone wants to operate on me they’ll have to do it without the fancy robots.

  2. The Truff says:


    Jesus. Christ. God.

  3. brian says:

    Nano-bots will likely play a huge role in the future of surgery, from what I’ve read.

  4. Imrana Iqbal says:

    Whether or not we like robots in our operating rooms, reversing this trend after it has once started might not be likely. What can be expected, however, is that in time technology and public policy will adapt to meet the expected challenges and contingencies from computerized surgeries, such as a robot malfunctioning at a critical time and patients’ feeling of some loss of human touch during illness.

  5. Eric says:

    Hospitals love robots because they are great marketing tools, and can attract patients by demonstrating that the hospital is cutting-edge and high-tech. Unfortunately, the benefits (if any) of robotic surgery are at the moment uncertain (though some studies show shortened post-surgical hospitalizations) and the devices are incredibly expensive. There is also some evidence that surgery rates go up dramatically in hospitals that get the robot, possibly indicative that the thresholds for surgical intervention are changed.

  6. Wickets says:

    Eric says: and the devices are incredibly expensive.

    So I ask compared to what; an ipad, a laptop, a dinner at le cirque, a medical degree maybe?

    I cannot wait for robots to take over the operating room….precise and exact and if the electricity runs out they can page a real doctor

  7. david says:

    Robots also have the advantage that they are more precise than a human hand. Alex’s story obviously offers a counter-example, but brain surgery by and large wouldn’t be possible without robot technology.

    They’re certainly no replacement for doctors, because they aren’t conscious (but could they be? John Searle says no, but it’s a big question these days for philosophers of mind–and, I will add, the subject of a paper I wrote for which I received the beatific grade of 98), but technology is a very valuable tool in medicine.

  8. Ambrose Lee says:

    Didn’t anyone see Prometheus? Can we all picture having a comprehensive multifaceted surgery-doing robot in our own homes? You simply excuse yourself from the table to go have a casual doublebypass, and you’re back by dessert.

  9. Devon Herrick says:

    Research has shown that (at least so far) robotic surgeries have not fared better than traditional hands-on surgery. This will probably change over time. It may take time for surgeons to acquire the skills required to perfect the use of these robots. Surgeons are very busy and their time is very valuable. The opportunity costs of training on a simulator might well be $500 to $1,000 per hour. The best example I can think of is kids playing video games. A kid playing a video game may spend 20 hours a week (1,000 hours a year) glued to a game console (for years at a time). The eye-hand coordination learned could be incredible. Yet, surgeons would have a very difficult time spending 1,000 hours training on a simulator.

    In most cases, the control station is in the Operating Room near the patient. However, where I can really see an advantage for robotic surgery is in remote surgery, where a surgeon in, say, India assists patients in locations without a surgeon. Many locations or rural areas cannot support specialized surgeons. But they could support a $2 million robot. The surgeon could be in a central location performing the operation.