Telecommuting just took on a whole new meaning.
Mehran Anvari, MD has taken up the science and art of telesurgery. From his home hospital in Hamilton, Ontario (Canada), he operates on patients as far as 400 kilometers (240 miles) away. With the patient is a remote-controlled robot (and several human nurses) that is hooked up to a system much like the Wii gaming set-up.
The surgeon’s hands are connected to hardware that he moves and the remote robot performs the actual actions on the patient. Dr. Anvari has performed twenty surgeries in this way so far, from hernia repair to colon surgery.
Nationwide, Over Twenty Thousand Surgeries Have Been Performed by Robots.
The advantage of using robots is that facilities that lack equipment or expertise can still get necessary services from qualified surgeons even if they are far away. In addition:
“Robotic surgery has provided the technology to address these limitations [human surgeons’ loss of natural three dimensional image, depth perception, and articulated movements] and allow the application of minimally invasive surgery to a broader spectrum of patients and their diseases. Surgical robots relieve some of these limitations by providing fine motor control, magnified three dimensional imaging and articulated instruments.”
Space, The Final Medical Frontier
Research into this remote technology began in the 1970s during the height of the space program. With all these people preparing to go here, there, and everywhere in the solar system (and eventually beyond) NASA needed to devise a way to handle healthcare remotely, specifically for astronauts. In partnership with the U.S. Army, telesurgery was developed.
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The first transatlantic surgery was performed in New York on a patient in France in 2001 using a robotic surgeon called the daVinci system. Dr. Anvari has named his “Zeus”. His practice of remote surgery began in 2003. In 2006, he employed the technology to suture a cut on a person living in the Aquarius underwater laboratory off the Florida Keys, simulating what space surgery might be like.
“It Doesn’t Feel Different.”
Dr. Anvari says of the surgical experience:
“It’s the same as if I were sitting in the operating room. I have both my hands on the robot the same way I would have instruments in both hands. Basically, it’s the same as if I were next to the patient, just using telecommunication and robotics. It doesn’t feel different.”
At first, there were technical communications issues such as dropped lines and lag time. Those have much improved over the years. That’s a good thing because the intent is to use robotic surgeons for space missions for which the closest doctor is many thousands (or millions) of miles away.
Future, more advanced, robots will have built-in algorithms and procedures so they can perform basic surgeries on their own—without a surgeon’s intervention. This supposes the advancement of artificial intelligence suitable to this kind of work. Scientists believe this will eventually be achieved.
The U.S. Department of Defense plans to have an active “Trauma Pod” that can be used to treat soldiers in the field by 2025.
With remote surgery comes a whole other facet of healthcare: medical tourism. This is becoming a large and lucrative industry. People wanting medical procedures either sooner or at less cost can go to another country to receive it.
With robotics, you needn’t leave your home country. The ethical issues and bureaucracy around the development of this kind of system is formidable but definitely imaginable.
It’s unknown what the consensus will be among patients requiring surgery—whether a procedure from a doctor some distance away using a machine as the hands to perform it—is something they are willing to commonly embrace. They’ll have to program in a good bedside manner.