Rise of the Machines

Posted on March 8, 2012


Cool, but is there a USB port for my iPod?

I recently observed my first robot-assisted operation with the da Vinci surgical system (left).  It’s designed to allow for surgery that’s less invasive and more precise, resulting in shorter hospital stays.  As you can see on the manufacturer’s website, the da Vinci surgical system is the best thing ever invented, and is somehow related to senior citizens dancing on a beach.

Essentially, the system consists of a half-ton multi-armed robot on wheels (which doesn’t even wax or buff the floor as it glides around the room), a separate control counsel for the surgeon, and a crapload of wires that are presumably intended to trip the 12 assistants and device reps apparently necessary for the case to proceed.

The surgeon and several unfortunate residents or medical students will position the patient, make small incisions, and attach several ports through which tools can be inserted.  Then, an OR nurse who may or may not be trained in Microsoft Excel has to attach the correct tools to the robotic arms and literally parallel park this behemoth machine close to the patient without running anyone over or disrupting the sterile field.  Finally, the surgeon makes their way to another part of the room and sticks his or her face into another robot to control the first robot.

Remind me, which one of these buttons shoots the photon torpedoes?

Are you appreciating the picture of inefficiency I’m attempting to paint here?  In the time it took to get this surgery started, I believe we could have completed the case laparoscopically.  I don’t argue that there’s no place or future for robot-assisted surgery – I can attest that it allows for precise technique with less “collateral” damage to surrounding tissue, but I’m not convinced it’s an improvement over laparoscopy in all cases (and the data agrees).

Robot-assisted surgery certainly has applications (tight surgical fields, battlefield & telemedecine, etc.), but the problem is that once an institution invests in one of these systems, they have to use it, and in my opinion they are sometimes selected for cases where there is no real benefit to the patient.

Anyway, throughout most of the procedure, part of me was waiting for this to happen:

I made sure not to make any sudden movements or point any sharp objects at the da Vinci.

A word of advice:  surgeons don’t think it’s funny when you try to communicate with their multi-million dollar piece of equipment by making “bleep-bloop” sounds and moving like C-3PO.

Posted in: Humor, Medicine