Robot Performs Heart Surgery, Will Surgeons' Union Go On Strike?

from the scalpel-please dept

Score one for medical technology. The first heart surgery performed solely by a robot took place in Italy this week, while doctors in the US monitored its progress. The robot already had experience from 10,000 human-guided surgeries, data from which it can now reference on its own. In this way, the machine is like an advanced chess computer, onto which trainers can load millions of games for it to reference in game situations. Though doctors are among the biggest costs in healthcare, and technology like this could certainly help save money, we can expect surgeons to fight tooth and nail from letting robots encroach on their territory. They’ll claim, much like top chess players do, that surgery is part art and that a robot could never match the performance of a human. Of course, robots don’t get tired after a long day, stressed out, lose concentration, or have any of the other human traits that affect the quality of surgery. And while doctors make mistakes all the time, robots will be held to a higher standard; after one mistake, there will be calls to curtail their use in medicine. With all due respect, many surgeons are like plumbers who work on an extremely complicated system of pumps and valves — in both cases, technology is reducing the value of their labor.

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Comments on “Robot Performs Heart Surgery, Will Surgeons' Union Go On Strike?”

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dorpus says:

30-year-old technology

These sorts of feats have been performed experimentally since the 1970s. Robots will still make mistakes, and who will be liable then? From the hospital’s point of view, a surgical machine, with its expensive up-front and maintenance costs, may not offer significant savings over human labor. The patient still has to be anesthetized by an anesthesiologist, and other labor still has to be present on site in the event of complications.

Surgeons already use plenty of semi-automated tools for their daily work. It is usually the patients themselves who want to be operated on by a human surgeon.

dorpus says:

Re: 30-year-old technology

p.s. human anatomy is very diverse — all of us have very different shapes of arteries running through our system. Can software really be smart enough to match an experienced surgeon’s intuition? How many computer programmers have 20 years of experience in human anatomy? Surgical machines will go through constant upgrades, the vendor will refuse to support machines over a few years old, and who can afford buying a $1 million machine every year?

stephen says:

actually yes a robot can find arteries.. they inject stuff into your veins before surgery that makes them visible.. durrrrr

what i’d be affraid of is one mistake happening and the robot not catching it.. i.e a tip of a blade falling off or something..

do i care if doctors are laid off for robots? absolutely not.. im not a doctor and i didnt spend 14 years at yale but oh well. doctors are good tho.. they diagnose well most of the time

Tyshaun says:

Cool, but give me my human...

As a software developer with 10 years of embedded programming experience (in the medical equipment field so yes I do know a lot of anatomy, physiology, and biochemistry along with programming and mechanics), I would say this is truly a very cool thing, but I still would prefer a highly trained human over a robot any day of the week. Sure, machines can become more proficient with experience, and statistically will have better outcomes than human doctors, but for now their limitation will be their inability to deal with situations they havent experienced or weren’t programmed to deal with, and I would hate to be the guy on the table when HAL turns around and goes “More Data Needed”. Seems to me that most prudent institutions using this technology would have a surgical team observing the procedures anyway, which negates the strongest case for thise machine, taking the very expensive surgeon out of the loop.

As an immediate benefit I could see these machines being used in areas where access to surgical staff is limited (and malpractice laws aren’t as well enforced). Sad but true I see the early adopters of this technology being third world hospice and clinics, not industrialized patient care centers where patient preference for the foreseeable future will remain in the hands of a doctor.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Cool, but give me my human...

And what about the human surgeon who turns around and says “More data needed”? Robot or human doesn’t matter if the situation is outside of any of its experiences.

With an almost infinite repository for information (via internet, other robots, specialists around the world), it seems that a robot would find it much easier to answer the question “so what do I do now?” than a human, who can only draw on past experience (only what is remembered) and the experience of anybody else in the room.

What does worry me is some sort of hardware or software failure. In many cases these cannot be forseen, but in the case of medical equipment, there is no doubt they will be tested extensively. With new advances in programming language verification (the most recent Scientific American has a good article), it is becoming possible to “prove” good software, much like you can “prove” hardware. Any unforseen faults can be taken care of by a secondary, or even tertiary watchdog system.

Personally, I would trust a robot (not now, but in the future) better than a doctor who may have had one too many drinks at lunch, whos wife/husband may have left him/her last night, or who is having some other sort of emotional problem.

Anonymous Coward says:

Let the Doctors feel the pain!

I think this will become the future just as other things have occurred within this Era. The truly interesting thing I find is this: The doctors can now join the ranks of the jobless with the rest of us. We’ll just outsource the technicians to other countries to perform any maintenance and monitoring over a network. Plus, there is no reason why a computer can not perform a diagnosis and dispense medication.

Don’t ya love technology.

Kevin (user link) says:

“Robots will be held to a higher standard” — on what do you base your confidence? You’re assuming the errors will get reported and not swept under the carpet for the sake of efficiency.

In the future the poor will get the buggy robot surgeons and only the rich will have access to human doctors (paraphrasing what somebody else once said about computers in education).

Jtheletter says:

People's worries are mostly unfounded here

As a developer of robots myself – currently military, previously pharmeceutical – I must say that the high standards of performance that these machines are held to is much more than anyone probably expects. The pharmecuetical robots I worked on were to be audited by the FDA and literally every minute step in the development and testing process is documented and reviewed constantly. While true, these surgical robots may not be perfect currently, with time their accuracy and scope of knowledge will only increase, and eventually they will surpass human surgeons for a majority of cases. I think a lot of us are confused by medical dramas we see on TV, such as House – which I enjoy – which tend to show us the rare cases where seemingly routine cases suddenly take an unexpected and complicated turn and only the supersmart doctors can figure it out. But that’s fiction, it’s done for drama’s sake. 99.9% of surgeries are very straightforward, and after this robot has performed/learned say 100,000 surgeries it will be very capable of handling just about anything. As to how they tested/taught this system I’m sure it was a combination of guided input and surgeons controlling the robot (telepresence) while the robot recorded what was being done. Essentially the Dr held the robot’s hand through the surgery and taught it what it should be doing. Will these robots totally eliminate all surgeons? No, you will always have someone on hand. But now instead of a team of 6 medical professionals you may only need 2 or 3, which will reduce costs. Also, there are strict guidelines for medical equipment that prevent the constant upgrade churn and weekly bugfixes that you see in the consumer PC market, so no, they won’t be spending an extra million every other week to perform critical upgrades to the system constantly. It would be similar to how an MRI is serviced in the hospital.

Jeffrey says:

What about the people?

There are already many people trying to finish out their school and make it into a successful career as a nurse. Also there are others trying to make it in the world as successful surgeons or doctors. IF we put a robot in a doctor’s position and have the robot doing what the doctor would be doing THEN all the robot has done is wasted the person’s life in college. People are saying that the people would then just work on these robots, but what happens when 10 people finish university and have their doctor’s diploma in their hands and they are told that only 2 are needed to work with the robots? Are we not then just bringing upon ourselves the difficulty of more unemployment? Will there be a day when robots completely take the position of the doctor? What happens to all those Doctors that spent 14 YEARS in college spending all that money just for it to go to waste, because they are told to learn how to maintain the robots and must attend another 4 years in college? I’m not planning on ever being a doctor but I’ve had 500,000 spent on me to save my life. I’ll tell you this, I am glad it was a surgeon. Possibly in 10 plus years, when there is zero percent of robot errors maybe but not now. Why don’t we fix our economies first? We have more than we can handle on our plates as it is, but adding the unemployment due to the robots just makes more difficulty. We need to be able to learn to fix our first problems before adding more. We can’t procrastinate the problems of our countries just to make another possible problem. These along with much more in depth possibilities run my mind, and I’ll tell you it isn’t necessary. Let’s do something right and fix these problems.

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