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Special report: Robots invade health care

by Nancy Ryerson, Staff Writer | March 11, 2013
From the March 2013 issue of HealthCare Business News magazine

Recently, studies have been done that look at Medicare databases of patients and note length of hospital stays and rates of complications. A European Urology study from April 2012, one of the first robotic surgery studies to look at a variety of patients from different hospitals, found that robotic surgery for bladder cancer leads to fewer complications than traditional open surgery. Other studies from 2012 found that robotic prostatectomy has better outcomes for urinary continence and erectile function than other surgical methods.

Mohr predicts that future research will further support the value of the surgery for patients. In the meantime, she says the expansion of robotics in hospitals that already have systems demonstrates their value. She says many of the company’s sales come from repeat buyers, and that some hospitals have as many as seven robots.

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NYU Langone is among the repeat customers.

“We’ve gotten a robot a year for the last four years,” says NYU’s Stifelman. “And I’m sure as the demand grows, we will continue to get more robots.”

Stifelman says that while the robots’ cost is their most significant drawback, he believes the systems help his hospital save money in the long run by decreasing operating time and length of hospital stay.

The future of robotics
As if the surgical robots of today don’t already sound incredibly futuristic, technology for health care robotics is always evolving. And while the robots perform impressive work, surgeons are interested in seeing certain improvements going forward.

“I would like to see the instruments on the single-site platform become smaller and wristed, so they’re more flexible,” says Stifelman. Patel hopes robots will eventually be enabled with imaging systems that allow surgeons to see nerve bundles.

Soon, even more robotic surgery companies are slated to enter the market. Valvo of Rochester General is also the vice president of medical affairs for a new company called Titan, which expects to release its first robot prototypes this year.

“Titan is involved in developing a robot that will be more cost effective, easier to use, more ergonomic and directed at single site applications,” says Valvo.

Fifteen years or so in the future, Mohr of Intuitive Surgical predicts that single-site robotic surgery will become more essential as advances are made in early cancer detection.

“The robots will be used to go in and take out small cancers that we’re finding earlier, and then the patients will be able to go on with a normal life,” says Mohr. “They may struggle to find where their scars are. This is what I see as the future of how robotics will intertwine with improvements in our ability to detect and diagnose early on.”

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