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Robodoc: surgeon of the future in theaters now
Mon Nov 3, 2008 8:24pm EST
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By Ben Hirschler
LONDON (Reuters) - A mechanical snake that can enter the body through natural orifices -- not an incision -- to perform operations is just one futuristic device researchers believe will transform traditional surgical techniques.
With a world recession looming and healthcare budgets under pressure, it may seem an odd time to be bullish about hi-tech surgery.
Robots, after all, are not cheap. The average selling price of the market-leading da Vinci system from California's Intuitive Surgical Inc is $1.35 million.
Some critics, including British fertility expert Robert Winston, have questioned the cost-effectiveness of robots when other treatments, such as cancer drugs, are being rationed.
But proponents note prices will inevitably fall as usage and competition increase, as happened with once-costly computers.
Tens of thousands of prostate, heart and other procedures are already being performed by robots, and experts predict machines will be used to penetrate deeper into ailing bodies in the years ahead.
In a university laboratory behind London's Science Museum, researchers are working on a new generation of hi-tech gadgets to take minimally invasive robotic surgery to the next level.
The prospect of robot arms probing into the abdomen may be alarming but their precision can mean less trauma, quicker recovery, a shorter stay in hospital and reduced tissue damage.
Among men needing prostate operations -- the biggest group to go under the robotic knife at present -- that means less risk of impotence, according to doctors who use the devices.
"It's not the easiest concept to describe to a patient," said surgeon Ara Darzi, co-director of the Hamlyn Center for Robotic Surgery at Imperial College London and a British government health minister responsible for patient care.
In his experience, patients are soon won over once the benefits are explained.
"Patients need to be reassured that this is not a machine operating independently. This is an enabling machine," he said.
Sitting at console and looking at a stereoscopic viewer, Darzi can direct his robot's multi-jointed pincers inside the patient's body using a series of joysticks and foot controls as he conducts gall bladder, cancer and other operations.
They may be state-of-the-art, but these robots are just the start. Continued...
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