The method, developed by associate professor of surgery Myriam Curet, MD, is an improvement on a more conventional technique called laparoscopic surgery. In both instances, specialized tools with cameras attached are inserted through small holes in the patient's body. But while traditional laparoscopic tools are held in the surgeon's hand, the robotic tools are operated remotely from a control station.
"It makes the surgery easier", stated Dr. Curet, noting that the da Vinci robotic surgical system, manufactured by Intuitive Surgical Inc. in Sunnyvale, California, offers several advantages over handheld laparoscopic tools. For example, it has a 3D camera to aid visualization, as opposed to the 2D fiber optic cameras used in the conventional tools. The robotic arms also have highly flexible wrists, making precise manoeuvers possible.
The robot also offers a benefit specific to gastric bypass surgery, which is often performed on morbidly obese patients: the robotic arms are strong enough to stay steady while working in these patients' massive abdomens. "The robot minimizes the torque of the abdominal wall", Dr. Curet explained, decreasing the chance that the surgeon would have to switch to open-cavity surgery midway through the procedure.
Gastric bypass is the most common form of weight-loss surgery. It drastically reduces the stomach's size to limit the amount of food intake, and also bypasses a significant portion of the small intestine, cutting down on nutrient absorption.
As the obesity epidemic has grown in recent years, so too has the number of gastric bypass operations. In the United States alone, the number of surgeries increased from 29.000 procedures in 1999 to about 141.000 in 2004, according to the American Society for Bariatric Surgery. The procedure poses about a 2 percent risk of mortality and requires lifelong changes in eating habits. But for many morbidly obese individuals, the operation is life-saving.
Gastric bypass procedures are notorious among surgeons for being technically complicated and difficult. Dr. Curet and her colleagues therefore wanted to develop a protocol to make the surgery easier on both the patient and the surgeon. To investigate whether the robotic system could safely and effectively streamline the process, the authors compared the results of 10 robotic surgeries with 10 conventional laparoscopic procedures.
They found that the robotic system makes the surgery qualitatively easier. For example, the surgeon can sit comfortably at the robot's control unit and gently operate joysticks, instead of having to stand over the patient for several hours wrestling with hand tools. But the robotic procedure also yielded a quantifiable benefit: median surgical times were approximately 30 minutes shorter using the robot than they were using hand tools.
The robot might also save time for surgeons in the long term. While the first few robotic operations can take longer than conventional methods for an inexperienced surgeon, "the learning curve is shortened with the robot", Dr. Curet stated.
The robotic surgeries referred to in the study were performed just last year. As such, Dr. Curet and her collaborators acknowledge that it is too early to draw any definitive conclusions regarding long-term patient outcomes. However, they are confident that the robotic system will prove to be just as safe and effective as conventional methods over time.
As with all new medical technologies, robotic surgery has been greeted with a degree of cautious skepticism. But the da Vinci system has already been used to perform many other surgeries, including kidney removal, prostate removal and even certain cardiac surgeries.
"People want to see the data and know that it is better", stated Dr. Curet, regarding the comparison between robotic gastric bypass and conventional laparoscopic bypass. "But they seem open to it."
More news on the da Vince robot surgery system is available in the VMW June 2005 article Robotic surgery dramatically reduces physical trauma for head and neck cancer patients.