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What Is Remote Surgery?

By Jillian O Keeffe
Updated May 17, 2024
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Historically, a doctor performed surgery on a patient through a large open incision. Keyhole surgery followed, where the surgeon used tools like endoscopic cameras to guide their scalpels through a tiny cut in the skin. Remote surgery is considered the next technological advance in surgery, which actually does not require the doctor to even be in the same room as the patient. Using robotic arms to actually perform the physical work, the doctor uses a television picture of the operating room, and a computer joystick-like setup, to control the robot's movements.

Remote surgery was first tested on a human in 2001. The patient was in France and the doctor was in New York. She was suffering from problems with her gallbladder, and needed an operation to remove it. From then on, remote surgery became a viable option for operations, especially for people who are living in inaccessible areas of the world without access to a specialist surgeon. As of 2011, however, it is not a standard procedure in most hospitals.

Operations generally require physical cutting, of skin and other relevant areas of the body. They may also involve other manipulations of the body like tying up damaged blood vessels, removing undesirable bits of tissue, or moving tiny cameras around to inspect problem areas. Sewing the patient back up is also a very common part of an operation.

Traditionally, a surgeon's hands directly controlled all the necessary pieces of equipment that came into contact with the patient. He or she was highly trained in surgical procedures, aware of the possible risks of the operation, and capable of performing the operation efficiently. Humans, though, naturally cannot keep their hands perfectly still, which can result in undesired nicks or other damage to the patient.

Robots do not have the same shakiness problem as humans, as they are mechanical instruments that can stay quite still, and can be designed to make very sensitive movements. The surgeon moves the computer controller and the computer translates this into movement instructions for the arms of the robot, no matter how far apart the two are. Remote surgery can lessen the risk of inadvertent damage, as even if the doctor has shaky hands while controlling the robot, the robot can be programmed to resist shake. The surgeon typically has all the visual information that he or she needs, through endoscopic camera images, and images of the operating theater, and the added advantage of less shake.

A potential disadvantage to remote surgery is that the instructions from the surgeon's computer controller need time to move to the robot itself, and so there is a tiny time lag, but it appears that the surgeon can adapt to this. Mechanical failure is another risk, and to make sure the patient is safe, another surgeon and the normal complement of nurses and support staff are present in person in the room. When time is of the essence, and a sick patient needs immediate surgery from a specialist, then a remote surgical may give that person a higher chance of survival than otherwise.

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