Robots in Medicine: Where Are We Headed?

By Ana Chrysa Maravelias

Robots have been used in medicine for nearly three and a half decades. The first recorded robot used in medicine was a PUMA 560 arm, which was used for assistance in a neurosurgical biopsy in 1985. Today, robots are used for a variety of surgeries, and are able to immensely aid doctors. They are rising in use and frequency, and are becoming more essential tools for medical professionals. This creates controversy among many, and poses a big question. Will robots take over our medical industry?  

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Humans used to be completely in control when performing operations. Think about it. Surgeries have been conducted for thousands of years, dating back to the times of ancient civilizations. Recently, a skull was found in France that had a drilled hole in it (the result of a procedure called trepanation) – suspected to date back to the 6500s B.C. Back then, there were no mechanized creations aiding the work, and everything was done by human hands.

Lately though, the same can not be said. In the year 2000, the da Vinci Surgery System became one of the first robotic systems to be accepted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This system currently assists doctors with surgeries that range from gallbladder to gynecologic to lung cancer. The systems make small incisions in the patient, and operate from there. Some doctors and researchers believe that robots are becoming so advantageous that one day they will be used unaccompanied by certified medical professionals.

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As of 2017, an estimated 877,000 robotic surgeries were performed. This is a dramatic increase from 2008 when that number was at 136,000. This has become a multibillion dollar industry with the average robotic procedure costing about $3,568.

Many patients choose to undergo robotic surgery because it is minimally invasive and causes less scarring. A variety of doctors suspect that when using robots, there is less room for error, more precision – so that accessing and performing surgeries on more miniscule areas of the body is possible – and they believe that with robots, they have more control, and are able to view the incision site with more clarity. Also, it is thought that with AI systems, there is less room for infection and blood loss. Despite all of these thoughts, robots still cause problems.

Although the majority of technologies used in the medical field really are beneficial – such as the Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machines, and the Computed Axial Tomography (CAT) scans – when artificial machines are used for more meticulous and dangerous jobs such as performing precarious operations,  mistakes (sometimes fatal ones) are more likely to occur. A study conducted by Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign suggested that “144 deaths, 1,391 injurites, and 8,061 device malfunction were recorded out of a total of more than 1.7 million robotic procedures carried out between January 2000 and December 2013 [in the United States].” Although these statistics seem fairly small, the risks of robotic surgery are real, and scare some patients. Remember, these statistics are from robotic surgeries which were conducted with doctors, not without them.

Some people suspect that robots will one day be able to conduct their own procedures without the help of medical professionals, however, the large majority think that doctors will always be needed to ensure that procedures run smoothly. Even if robots do become technologically advanced to the point that they can conduct their own operations, one item will never be achieved by robots. Empathy. As researchers from the Journal of General Internal Medicine once wrote, “The function of empathy is not merely to label emotional states, but to recognize what it feels like to experience something,that is why empathy is needed even when it is quite obvious what emotion label applies to a patient.” Without empathy, just being a good surgeon is not enough. Without empathy, patient-doctor relations wither down to nothing.