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Surgical Robots: a paradigm shift in healthcare

AUG 18, 2023 | Paras Sharma| Jim Morrish| Joydeep Bhattacharyya
region: ALL Health & Social Care Internet of ThingsArtificial IntelligenceAutonomous Robotic SystemsEdge Computing

The healthcare industry and its related fields have been through a significant shift in recent years, particularly through the application of some of the critical new emerging technologies. In a report titled ‘Digital Transformation in the Healthcare Sector’, Transforma Insights highlighted eight domains of change occurring in the healthcare industry, largely facilitated by disruptive technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT) (as explained in a separate blog, ‘Digital transformation in healthcare is driven by AI and IoT’).

This blog focuses on surgical robots (one of the eight key domains of change) and defines what they are, their benefits, the business impact of their deployment, and some challenges that may affect their adoption.

What are surgical robots?

Surgical robots are sophisticated robotic systems equipped with surgical instruments, cameras, and a central control console. During surgery, skilled surgeons utilize these advanced tools to manipulate robotic arms while simultaneously observing high-definition images of a patient’s body.

What are the key benefits of surgical robots?

Various companies are now offering robotic surgery systems which are used for different types of surgery such as cardiac, urology, chest, and gynaecology. One such robotic system is Intuitive’s da Vinci robotic surgery system. To date, the da Vinci surgery system has performed over 10 million surgical procedures, including 1.5 million in 2021 alone.

This section of the blog briefly explores the key benefits of surgical tools, as they play an instrumental role in shaping the future of healthcare.

Perform complex operations

Surgical robots are being increasingly deployed in the healthcare industry since they allow healthcare professionals to perform complex operations, by using high-definition cameras to access hard-to-reach areas inside a patient’s body. The magnified view of body tissues and the precise movements of robotic arms enable surgeons to achieve superior patient outcomes, ensuring better efficiency in the medical field. Such systems also allow surgeons to gain enhanced precision, better control, and flexibility due to the free movement of robotic arms as opposed to the restricted manual movement.

Better method than open and laparoscopic surgeries

Robotic surgery is surpassing traditional open and laparoscopic (keyhole) surgery methods since it involves smaller and fewer incisions, resulting in reduced blood loss, shorter hospital stays, and quicker recovery times. According to a study conducted by the UCL (University College London) and the University of Sheffield, patients undergoing robotic surgeries witnessed a 77% decrease in blood clots compared to open surgery.

Reduced risk of infection

Robots have found multiple use cases in the healthcare industry and are now used for bone surgery, percutaneous biopsy, hair transplant, and intraoperative radiotherapy. To cite an instance, the Atlantic Health System has performed over 7,700 robot-assisted surgeries and it uses the da Vinci Surgical System for multiple types of surgeries including bariatric, paediatric, urologic, transoral, and gynaecologic. Since robotic-assisted surgery involves precise and small incisions, it also ensures decreased risk of infection.

What is the business impact of deploying surgical robots?

Surgical robots can reduce the duration of patients’ stay in hospital while recovering from operations. The above-mentioned study by the University College London and the University of Sheffield also found that patients who underwent robotic surgery recovered faster and witnessed a 20% shorter hospital stay.

Such surgical robots can also lower hospital admission and readmission rates. In 2018, the US healthcare system incurred over USD50 billion in costs for hospital readmissions, and it is estimated that robot-assisted surgery can potentially reduce readmission rates by around 50%. Hospital readmission rates serve as a crucial performance indicator that is used for benchmarking hospitals. Recognizing the immense potential of robotic surgery, hospital networks are now increasingly investing to offer robot-assisted surgeries to patients. In addition, by using surgical robots, hospitals can perform more surgery and treat more patients with the available resources, which may reduce their staffing requirements and decrease staff-related and overhead costs as well.

Some challenges barring the deployment of surgical robots

The cost of surgical robots presents one of the most significant hurdles that can impede their widespread adoption, particularly among smaller hospitals and healthcare units. These cutting-edge machines come with a hefty price tag, often reaching millions of dollars, making them financially prohibitive for many institutions to acquire and integrate into their facilities. For instance, a da Vinci system, which has a lifespan of five years, costs around USD1.4 million, and has an annual maintenance cost of USD100,000.

Another significant difficulty is training surgeons to use these incredibly complex devices. Adopting robotic surgery necessitates specialised training and knowledge as doctors must be familiar with the complexities of the robotic system's interface. Some healthcare practitioners who want to utilise this cutting-edge technology may be discouraged by the time and financial resources required for this additional training.

Final thoughts: Re-shaping healthcare with surgical robots

Surgical robots represent a groundbreaking advancement in the healthcare industry, as they transform the ways critical surgery is performed, benefitting both patients and hospitals. These robots ensure precise incisions, less blood loss, lower risk of infection, and quicker recovery times and are therefore outperforming traditional surgical methods (such as open and laparoscopic surgeries). Using them also lowers hospital admission and readmission rates, allows more patients to be served with limited resources, and reduces staff requirements (reducing associated expenses). However, despite all the benefits, the high acquisition cost of surgical robots and the requirement of specialised training for surgeons remain the primary hurdles, which must be addressed to fully unlock their true potential.

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