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Ask A Doctor... What is Robotic Surgery?

January 6, 2017 | By Lisa Schwenk
Published in: Question Answer, Robotics, Surgery

The arms of the da Vinci robot

Richard Embrey, MD
Richard Embrey, M.D.

Answer provided by Richard Embrey, MD, Chief Medical Officer at Augusta Health. Dr. Embrey attended medical school at the Johns Hopkins and completed his training in general surgery at Harvard/Massachusetts General Hospital, followed by a cardiothoracic fellowship at the University of Alabama. He also earned an MBA from the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University.

As a physician, I view the practice of medicine as both science and art, and constantly evolving. New technology is introduced, then the knowledge surrounding that technology is adopted, and then both are improved for the benefit of our patients. Recently Augusta Health introduced a new technology when our first robotic-assisted surgery was performed on October 25, 2016.

So what is robotic surgery? It's a type of minimally invasive surgery performed with the assistance of a piece of equipment that we call a robot. Minimally invasive means the incisions are tiny. This is good for the patient because it generally means fewer complications like infections, less pain and blood loss, smaller scars and a quicker recovery.

The 'robot' has mechanical arms with a camera attached to one, and surgical instruments to the others. The physician controls the arms from a console right there in the operating room. The benefit of the camera is that it presents a high-definition 3D image that is better than the human eye can see. The benefit of the arms and instruments are that they are so small they can reach and cut with much more precision that the human hand. And because it's all directed by the physician at the console, it has the benefit of that doctor's years of training and experience. So the robotic system translates the surgeon's movements to tiny instruments that are smaller than the hand can hold and uses the 3D-HD vision to see what an eye might not.

Our Augusta Health robot is the da Vinci Xi, which has increased capabilities to perform complex procedures. It's the latest version, and we are the first in the area to have it. Our first procedures have been prostatectomies and hysterectomies.

Since these robots have been around for almost 20 years, some have asked, "Why purchase one now?" The reason is that we waited until this option became the best option for a good number of our patients. It's an option that allows those patients to receive the best possible care right here, without a need to travel for that care.

Early on, this technology had more potential than benefit, and was viewed by many as a gimmick. However, the technology has evolved and the knowledge and experience surrounding the robot have progressed to the point where it offers real benefit to many patients and can be an improvement over conventional surgery in some situations. Patients who would like to consider robotic surgery as an option should discuss the option with their surgeon to come to a decision that is best for their specific situation.

The time is right to bring this technology to Augusta Health for the benefit to our patients. We followed Alexander Pope's wise advice to "be not the first to try the new, nor the last to lay aside the old".

If you are interested in robotic surgery as an option, please discuss your situation with your physician or surgeon.