A Guiding Hand
Robots are showing up in ever more surgical suites. But they're better suited for some operations than others
Medical trend watchers and practitioners expect that as the machines become more sophisticated, their use will become accepted as the standard of care for many procedures rather than an oddball exception that insurers aren't sure how to handle. One of the key enhancements researchers are exploring is giving the machines a sense of touch. Surgeons rely on how tissue feels to guide them as they cut and sew, but the current robots don't give any tactile feedback. Researchers are working on a sensor that would measure pressure at the tip of an instrument and relay that information to surgeons' own fingertips. Another exciting possibility involves superimposing ultrasound or CT scans onto what the camera inside the patient sees, so that nerves, blood vessels, and organs can easily be avoided or even programmed into the software as no-fly zones for the robot's instruments.
Some researchers are heading in the opposite direction, developing simpler, stripped-down robots with disposable instruments that could be used easily and cheaply for certain procedures. "You wouldn't take an Indy car to the grocery store," says William Peine, a faculty member of the Regenstrief Center for Health Care Engineering at Purdue University. "I'd like to make a surgical robot that's the equivalent of a Toyota."
In the end, however, a robot is just a tool, and what matters most is not the surgical method used but the surgeon who's using it. Without a sure hand to guide it, after all, a robot is just a flashy piece of high-tech hardware.