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Robotic surgery yields benefits, but deserves our ongoing scrutiny

When new medical technology is introduced, it’s only natural for us to be dazzled by the “Wow” factor, as we imagine treatments and cures that were previously thought impossible. That was the initial reaction to robot-assisted surgery in the early 2000s, but it was quickly followed by healthy skepticism: Would this type of surgery be effective for a wide range of patients? Would it really broaden surgeons’ capabilities? Would it be cost-effective?

We now know the answer is Yes. Recently, at the JGH’s first conference on robotic surgery, experts from within the hospital, from elsewhere in Canada and from the United States presented a decade’s worth of statistics to back up their assertions. They also offered a tantalizing glimpse into the future, explaining how new versions of the robot may incorporate some form of artificial intelligence to help surgeons in various ways, such as identifying anatomical features as small as a hair-like nerve in the brain.

However, despite these successes, we must recognize fundamental fact: The surgical robot is a tool. Clearly, it’s far removed from the humble, low-tech realm of scalpels or clamps, but it’s a tool, nonetheless. It deserves to be the focus of our attention only to the extent that it continues to live up to its promise as a means of easing a patient’s pain and improving the quality of his or her life.

What we need to keep in mind today—and whenever we examine the newest updates—is not just what robotic technology can do, but what good can it do. Will it make recuperation quicker? Will it contribute to a reduction in complications? Will its minimal invasiveness have a positive psychological effect on the patient? Will its long-term use bring about financial and other benefits that add demonstrable value to our healthcare system?

Like all of us, I’m eager to know what marvels await us just around the corner. However, the future that really matters is what life will be like for each patient in the weeks, months and years after the surgical robot has done its job.

Lawrence

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