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Surgical Robots Will Soon Share More Operating Room Space

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Surgical robots are expected to be the next big thing in operating rooms around the world, even though many doctors have observed that robotics in their industry needs improvements.

Within the next five years, one in three surgeries in the country is expected to be performed by robotic systems, which is double the current numbers. Surgeons will sit at computer consoles, guiding mechanical arms in operations. Companies developing new robots plan to expand to India, China and similar emerging markets, Fortune reports.

Intuitive Surgical is the robotics company with the largest share of the world market, having over 3,600 of its  da Vinci Surgical Systems working in global hospitals. The company said last week that the number of procedures conducted by their innovations has jumped by 16% in the second quarter of this year, compared to 2015.

The anticipated increase in the demand for these artificial surgeons, along with the perceived weaknesses of the current models, has attracted rivals, including Medtronic and a start-up funded by Johnson & Johnson and Google.

Company executives and doctors have told Reuters that developers of the next generation of robots intend to make them less expensive, more agile, and able to perform more types of medical procedures.

Surgical robots run to an average of $1.5 million and need constant maintenance, but insurance companies don’t pay additional for surgeries that use the robot systems than other types of minimally-invasive procedures, like laparoscopy.

Even so, many top hospitals in the US for cancer treatment, gynecology, urology and gastroenterology have made the investment in robot systems, featuring them in hospital campaigns to attract more patients. New doctors are also trained routinely in how to use the machines.

According to Intuitive Surgical, robots are used in hysterectomies, hernia repair, bariatric surgery and a majority of prostate removals. Some doctors say they are a great help, reducing fatigue and giving them greater precision.

However, not all doctors agree. Robot-assisted surgery can take up a lot of time, reducing the number of procedures one doctor can perform in a day. Dr. Helmuth Billy, who was an early proponent of Intuitive’s da Vinci robotic systems 15 years ago, says equipping the robot’s arms with instruments slowed him down. He rarely uses it, and says, “If I have to constantly dock and undock da Vinci, it becomes cumbersome.”

Dr. Dmitry Oleynikov from a robotics task force for the Society of American Gastrointestinal and Endoscopic Surgeons, says that in order to gain an edge, new robots will need to outdo laparoscopic surgery.

Surgeons have expressed their wish for robots to be able feel body tissue remotely, called haptic sensing, and better image quality. New systems will also need to be priced low enough to get hospitals and medical centers that have not yet purchased a da Vinci, as well as convince those with robotic systems in place to invest in a second one, or switch suppliers.

Developers say they are paying attention to these concerns. Verb Surgical, the venture backed by Johnson & Johnson and Google, is investing around $250 million in its robotics project, saying that creating a faster and user-friendly system is the priority. Chief Executive Scott Huennekens says Verb likewise envisions a, “always there, always on” system that will enable surgeons to use the robot for parts of a procedure, as necessary.

Intuitive, for its part, is working to improve its technology at a reasonable cost, and said that new players will face similar challenges. CEO Gary Guthart says, “As competitors come in, they are going to have to work within that same framework.”

Medtronic has predicted that its surgical robot will be ready for launch in mid-2018, and targets India as its first market. Other companies developing robots include TransEnterix and Titan Medical.


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