Increasing Access to Robotic Surgery

By Emily Newton, Editor-in-Chief, Revolutionized
LinkedIn: Emily Newton
X: @ReadRevMag

A growing body of research positions surgical robots as game-changing for patients and surgeons. These high-tech machines can handle highly precise procedures on delicate body parts. Surgical professionals like the technology because it allows them to work more accurately with magnified images from inside a person’s body on high-definition screens. Patients praise the faster recovery times, smaller incisions and reduced pain. However, there’s a notable lack of access to robotic surgery.

Factors like a surgeon’s ability to receive specialized training or where a patient resides could limit or prevent those parties from exploring robotic surgery as a viable option. Tackling this issue won’t be easy and will take time, but here are some practical ways to make positive changes.

Increase Telesurgery Investments

As low-latency 5G connections became more common worldwide, some tech enthusiasts became curious about the possibility of doctors performing robotic surgery procedures without being in the same room — or even city — as the patient.

One research project about telesurgery is using artificial intelligence to make medical robots better equipped to recognize shapes such as body parts or implants. Those involved believe it could improve access to robotic surgery by providing it to patients living in places without the necessary local medical expertise. Then, a surgical assistant would be in the same room as the person on the operating table, with the surgeon physically distant but fully participating.

If telesurgery becomes more widely used, people have more opportunities to undergo advanced operations with seasoned experts, even if those surgeons cannot physically travel to the operating table. That’s a tremendous benefit, especially when patients face life-threatening circumstances requiring quick interventions.

Many surgical robots can also operate where human hands cannot go. Then, patients previously unsuitable for surgical interventions might have new opportunities.

Highlight the Reduced Negative Outcomes

The idea of robots performing surgical procedures has gained momentum quickly, but some people still feel uncertain about the option. One of the reasons is people often fear things they don’t understand well. Some still perceive surgical robots as new and may view them as unproven.

This mindset can affect those with the authority to purchase those advanced machines, too. Such equipment typically costs more than $1 million, so leaders want clear indicators it would significantly improve surgical workflows.

Luckily, those enhancements are well within reach, especially when people use other technologies alongside surgical robots. For example, health care providers use ultrasonic imaging to check for plaque buildup in arteries. The ultrasonic waves provide a resolution of approximately 0.2 millimeters, delivering the sharp clarity necessary for accurate assessments. Then, patients get the correct interventions, minimizing the unwanted consequences of delayed treatments or the wrong diagnoses.

Some work has combined surgery robots with ultrasonic imaging devices. Bleeding is one of the most common major complications of transoral robotic surgical procedures to treat patients with obstructive sleep apnea. Some individuals need further operations due to that side effect. However, researchers made progress in overcoming that possibility by using ultrasonic technology to support these surgeries.

Their goal was to confirm the location of lingual arteries in patients during their procedures. The results showed this approach made catastrophic bleeding events less frequent while shortening surgery times.

Focusing on positive results like these could make formerly hesitant hospital decision-makers realize it’s time to invest in robotic technologies. Even doing so slowly and waiting to see the returns on investment would ultimately increase access to robotic surgery for the people who need it.

Recognize and Remove Barriers

Health inequity is a tremendous issue across the world. Many of those most acutely affected by it lack primary care physicians and modern hospitals, so access to robotic surgery seems especially difficult.

However, a 2022 study detailed the benefits and challenges of bringing this technology to low and middle-income countries. The suggestions detailed in the investigation ranged from equipment-sharing arrangements to financial subsidies. It also highlighted the need for specialized training whereby people from health care organizations in high-income countries could teach those in lower and middle-income countries.

Though implementing some of these suggestions could take many years, it’s still worthwhile to try. People can only begin improving current situations once they identify the main barriers.

They also have more opportunities to achieve meaningful results by interacting with peers who have previously participated in broadening access to robotic surgery. Which approaches worked best and which were less successful than anticipated? What were the main concerns of people unfamiliar with robotic surgery and how did those with extensive knowledge alleviate them?

Better Access to Robotic Surgery Would Save Lives

The risk of surgical complications is always present, even when people undergo the most straightforward procedures. Robotic surgery does not eliminate it, but it increases the chances of success by reducing many challenges.

If society had more widespread access to robotic surgery, fewer people would suffer the complications associated with barriers to medical care. There’s a long way to go to achieve the necessary progress, but now is the time to start putting in the effort.