Robots on ‘cutting edge,’ but need a better name

Published 1:57 pm Monday, March 29, 2010

They need to come up with a better name.

I’ve been seeing a lot of ads for “robotic surgery” lately.

Frankly, what comes to mind is being strapped on a gurney waiting for Rosie from the Jetsons to whir into the room and start slicing away.

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It doesn’t help that much “robotic surgery” is in what we shall call the nether regions — hysterectomies and prostatectomies.

That’s even more disconcerting.

Of course, in reality robotic surgery isn’t automated surgery. There are still people — people who wear scrubs and lab coats and have diplomas and certificates on their walls — involved.

As far as I can tell, the “robotic” aspect is akin to what we’ve all seen on TV — an explorer using handheld controls linked to an articulated arm to pick up an ancient coin from the ocean floor five or six miles under the boat.

In the old days, surgeons cut people open and, using their hands, found and cut out a bad appendix or whatever, sewed up the hole and called it a day.

That gave way to laparascopic surgery. A smaller incision was needed because only the instruments were inserted, not three or four sets of hands. One of the instruments was a camera hooked up to a monitor in the operating room. Surgeons watched the monitor to see what they were doing, but were still in direct, manual control as they moved the instruments around to snare a gall bladder or whatever.

The newer technology is called “robotic,” as I understand it, because it goes one more step.

The incisions are still small and the monitors are still there (albeit high-def), but instead of direct, manual control, surgeons guide instruments that have their own little servo motors or whatever. For now, the surgeons are still in the room, but if Air Force personnel sitting at a console in Colorado can fire missiles into a shack in Pakistan (robotic war?), there’s no reason why a doctor at River Region couldn’t repair a hernia in Argentina.

Others can figure out how all this figures into health reforms, but clearly there’s less reason every day for specialists and patients to be in the same hemisphere — at least for lots of surgical procedures. Who knows, maybe Walmart will soon open a clinic where we can get facelifts via a satellite link to Taiwan for $19.95.

According to information from the University of Mississippi Medical Center, patient demand is what’s driving the increase in “robotic surgery.” Where abdominal surgery once involved a hospital stay of a week or longer, folks can walk in and walk out the same day, plus there’s the aspect of a much smaller scar, if any.

Doctors themselves say they have a better view of what’s going on than when their hands were in the way and that their work can be much more precise due to related devices that provide three-dimensional views of what they’re doing.

UMC says four years ago, 60 percent of prostatectomies were performed using the machines and there will be an increase to 80 percent this year.

But they still need a better name than “robotic surgery,” at least for those of us who grew up watching the Jetsons.

Rosie wielding a scalpel is not a comforting image.

Charlie Mitchell is executive editor of The Vicksburg Post. Write to him at Box 821668, Vicksburg, MS 39182, or e-mail