Robot surgery: bring it on!

Another robotic first (from MedGadget):

The world’s first remote robotic heart rhythm treatment procedure was conducted at the University Hospitals of Leicester. It was performed using the Catheter Robotics Remote Catheter Manipulation System. A 70 year old man with atrial fibrillation had a catheter ablation controlled by a robotic arm, while the cardiologist – sitting in a separate room – used remote control to steer the catheter endovascularly into the heart to correct faulty tissue fibers. Although it was controlled from an adjacent room in this case, the fully remote-controlled robot could be controlled from anywhere in the world. The procedure was successfully completed in one hour and the patient is supposedly doing well.

I fully believe that medicine will go global within the next 20 years. Information-intensive specialties, especially radiology, have been the first to demonstrate the potential. That’s pretty straightforward in retrospect: using the Internet to transmit digital images for interpretation.

Even as teleradiology began to catch on, most observers assumed it was a special case. And yet high-definition teleconferencing has already enabled remote ICU monitoring. With the advent of robots we should see the emergence of remote surgery, too.

A couple things will hold back the wave for a while: regulation and the comfort level of people who are used to doing things the old way. But the wave won’t be held back forever.
Coming workforce shortages (caused by demographics but also barriers erected to immigration) will make people more flexible. A new generation of Internet-savvy patients won’t be so scared of remote treatment. And as quality measures and public reporting proliferate, patients will realize their clinical outcome may be better with an excellent remote doctor than a pretty good one who happens to live close by.

April 29, 2010

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