Wanted: Cheaper robots able to do new operations
EVEN though many doctors see the need for improvement, surgical robots are poised for big gains in operating rooms around the world.
Within five years, one in three United States operations - more than double current levels - is expected to be performed with robotic systems, with surgeons sitting at computer consoles guiding mechanical arms.
Companies developing new robots also plan to expand their use in India, China and other emerging markets.
Robotic surgery has been long dominated by pioneer Intuitive Surgical, which has more than 3,600 of its da Vinci machines in hospitals worldwide.
It said last week the number of procedures that used them jumped by 16 per cent in the second quarter compared with a year earlier.
The anticipated future growth - and perceived weaknesses of the current generation of robots - is attracting deep-pocketed rivals, including Medtronic and a start-up backed by Johnson & Johnson and Google.
Developers of the next wave aim to make the robots less expensive, more nimble and capable of performing more types of procedures.
Although surgical robots run an average of US$1.5 million (S$2 million) and entail maintenance expenses, insurers pay no more for operations that utilise the systems than for other types of minimally-invasive procedures, such as laparoscopy to examine the organs inside the abdomen.
Still, most top US hospitals for cancer treatment, urology, gynaecology and gastroenterology have made the investment.
Surgical robots are used in hernia repair, bariatric surgery, hysterectomies and the vast majority of prostate removals in the US, according to Intuitive Surgical data.
Doctors say they reduce fatigue and give them greater precision.
But robot-assisted surgery can take up more time than traditional procedures, reducing the number of operations the surgeon can perform. That has turned off some like Dr Helmuth Billy.
He said equipping the da Vinci robot's arms with instruments slowed him down. He rarely uses it now.
"If I have to constantly dock and undock da Vinci, it becomes cumbersome," he added.
To gain an edge, new robots will need to outperform laparoscopic surgery, said Dmitry Oleynikov, who heads a robotics task force for the Society of American Gastrointestinal and Endoscopic Surgeons.
Surgeons also want robots to provide a way to feel the body's tissue remotely and better camera-image quality.