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Thinking outside the Box 1: Robotic Surgery

By Muhammad Mohsin Ali
It is a generally accepted idea in the medical fraternity that you don’t need a lot of things in life to be nettled: your studies are more than enough. What with Anatomy substages, Physiology tests (and even worse: lectures) and everything about Biochemistry, you feel you have enough on your hands to cope with for a lifetime.

You think about conceiving a murder plan for the next person who mentions studies. You consider air embolism, electrocution and even tension pneumothorax. But then, you are limited in our means and you don’t want to spend the next 4 years in a smelly cell inside the Session Court.

But rest assured: Thinking Outside the Box is not something to make you wish you had never chosen the medical field. TOTB is going to be a fun-filled exploration of some of the sophisticated frontiers of modern science, especially medicine, which you don’t get to learn about in the newly demolished Anatomy lecture theater. As you read, you will realize that there’s more to life than tendons, ligaments and action potentials.
So, having said that, let us turn our thoughts to the topic at hand today, which is gonna be surgical robotics.
Yesterday, I watched I, Robot (ah yes, I admit I never watched it before), a movie based on the theme that by 2035, robotics will have evolved so much that robots will try to take the world in their own hands and to govern the creators. This is probably unlikely, but one thing is very much likely: we’ll be using robots like never before. Already, in 2014, we are experimenting on robots that can think like humans, and by 2035, we might well have robots strolling up and down our streets, singing in our operas and working as cash managers in our local markets.


How, you might ask, does this in anyway even wildly link to medicine? Well, you don’t have to look too far: the answer is right here. Robotics and surgery make as good a match as anything else, and hence now we officially have a terminology on surgical robotics.
In case you find this slightly exhilarating (and I dunno why you should feel that way), you might drop out of your seat on hearing that till date, nearly 2 million successful surgical operations have been carried out using—that’s right—robotics.
How come? Well, in its nearly 200 years of documented history, surgery has seen quite a few major shifts. From dissecting people publicly to remove a kidney stone to successfully saving the lives of chain smokers by CABG, surgery has evolved at a rate paralleled only perhaps by pharmaceutics. And now, instead of cutting people up to check what’s wrong with them, we use procedures that involve only a minor incision and access to the vital organs your body houses. Such procedures are called minimally invasive procedures.
In robotic surgery, the best known systems of which are the Zeus and the Da Vinci system (yup, the guy who created the inscrutable Mona Lisa), we use such a procedure to access the body. And here comes the creepy part: it’s not a real, living surgeon shredding through the layers of skin—it’s a robot.
But it isn’t as creepy as it looks. The robot is not working on its own (thankfully!) but is being operated by a surgeon sitting at a gaming console a few feet from the patient. Once the barriers of the body have been breached, the surgeon guides the robot inside, where the body structures can not only be visualised by a 3-D camera that is cooler than a DSLR, but also be excised, or treated in whatever way they are supposed to be treated, by microscopic surgical instrumentation.

The experience (for the surgeon) is often exhilarating. It’s like you have shrunk yourself by eating a piece of cake, like in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and then entered the body to check what’s malfunctioning. In fact, you’d appreciate this even more if you watched Dexter in your childhood—and not focused on DeeDee.
And if this were not exciting enough for a lifetime, recently scientists have invented a robotic phlebotomist—a machine chap who knows all about the anatomy of veins, can check via ultrasound for blood flow in the right one, and then puncture it to obtain your blood sample, efficiently and neatly in under a minute.

The advantages of robotic surgery are multifarious. Not only can we see what was previously obscure, but we can also perform procedures with low risk and less pain. Patients don’t have to be hospitalized for days on an end: you get a surgery done and in a few hours you’re heartily seen quaffing a pint of coffee at the local shop.
Robotic surgery is not the future of tomorrow, it is the present of today. Once we all grow up (if we still can), we won’t be cutting people open simply to remove a tumorous growth. We’ll be using robots, and it is undeniable that robots are not as stupid as some humans are.
So don’t fret, don’t worry. We’re going to have robots sooner or later. And if it is inevitable, why not use them to save more lives?
Cheers!
    


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