Rise of the Robots

Guest post by Khemraj Singh, New Jersey Institute of Technology

From bank tellers to ATMs.

From cashiers to self-checkouts.

From toll collectors to EZ-Pass.

From accountants to income-tax preparing software.

Technological improvements such as these have contributed significantly to the betterment of consumer lifestyle. These advancements were all deviations from the norm that were considered revolutionary in nature at the time of their inception. Upon fruition, these technological advancements were not all met positively. There was doubt. There was also general skepticism. Eventually, as individuals familiarized themselves with these advancements it was looked at positively by the public. Modern technological advancements like these have added to a more efficient world. Technology contribute to smarter, quicker, and sleeker machines. Technological advancement is on an upward trend and, as we have seen, can surface almost anywhere and in any industry.

How do surgeons and surgical robots compare to this trend? It’s apparent that surgeons are in desperate need for help. Thankfully, like other technological advancements, surgical machines have been created to provide some assistance to doctors in order to ease the overwhelming burden taken on by surgeons.

According to Physicians Weekly, the number of surgeons needed to adequately serve the population is estimated to be at least 7 over 100,000 people. Unfortunately, in the last 25 years the ratio of general surgeons per 100,000 individuals has dropped by 26%. Residency programs produce about 1,050 new general surgeons per year. This rate has been stagnant for the past 20 years. With the impending retirement of baby boomers, there is an increased demand for surgeons.4 Consequently, if there exists no surge in the number of surgeons per year, the current surgeons will have to work much harder and much longer. Shanafelt et al. conducted a study of approximately 24,922 surgeons. 40% reported feeling burnt out at work. 30% screened positive for symptoms of depression.1 These statistics are outright alarming. More alarming is the fact that these numbers do not consider the growing population over time.

North America Surgical Robot Market Share, by product 2014-2024

 

Surgical Robot Market
Thus far, technology is making a lasting impression on the medical device industry. Robotic surgery currently allows doctors to perform complex procedures with considerable accuracy, precision, flexibility, and control. Compared to traditional surgery, invasive robotic surgery has fewer complications, less pain and blood loss, quicker recovery, and smaller scars.2

There is no denying the fact that the future for surgical robots is promising. Analyzing trends in the surgical robot market, we can see exponential growth ahead. The surgical robot market share was valued at 4 billion dollars in 2015 and is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 20.03% by 2024 as shown.6

This is very promising for the medical device industry. The need for surgical robots is growing at an alarming rate. As technology improves, there exists a strong possibility that these robots may even replace surgeons someday. However, the transition from surgeons to a fleet of robo-surgeons are generations away.

As shown in the graph, the largest expected contributor during this 10-year stretch is the da Vinci surgical system designed by Intuitive. Despite such promising results Bloomberg mentions the company’s shortcomings regarding the surgical robot. Intuitive generated $229 million from 150 da Vinci Surgical systems. This year, Intuitive has produced only 143, totaling $215 million. This apparent drop in sales of robotic systems can be attributed to cost cutting by US hospitals. Frankly, the da Vinci is not cheap and hospitals have been decreasing capital spending. Cancer surgery, hysterectomies, and gall bladder removals are among common procedures conducted with the surgical robot. Each of these procedures is about $1.5 million if conducted with a surgical robot. To make matters worse, the da Vinci system has been subject to a slew of negligence lawsuits alleging patient injury during surgeries with the device. 2 The question soon begs, how would you assess malpractice insurance when the cause of liability is a machine?

At present, surgical robot machines are assisting surgeons with various procedures and operations. These machines are controlled directly by surgeons. Take for example the da Vinci system. This system is teleoperated where the surgeon sits at a console and manipulates controls that would mimic small tools inside the patient’s body. These types of surgical robots are aiding in targets that are held in place during the entire surgical procedure such as leg bones, eyes, and heads.3 Eventually, the belief is that surgical robots will take a more active role. At one point in time, “innovation” in the car industry was the invention of manual transmission which later gave rise to automatic transmission. Self parking soon followed. Now, just around the corner will come a fully self-driving car. Because of the lack of technology and hospital budget, surgical robotics may take a longer time for fruition.  Despite this, the auto industry illustrates that with an ounce of patience full automation is inevitable.

 

References:

“Burnout and Career Satisfaction among American Surgeons.” Annals of Surgery 250(3):463-471, 2009.

“Intuitive Surgical Declines on Falling Da Vinci Sales.” Bloomberg.com. Bloomberg, n.d. Web. 27 Nov. 2016.

“Robotic Surgery.” Robotic Surgery – Mayo Clinic. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Nov. 2016.

“A Shortage of General Surgeons: Coming Soon?” Physician’s Weekly. Aug. 13, 2012.

Strickland, Eliza. “Autonomous Robot Surgeon Bests Humans in World First.” IEEE Spectrum: Technology, Engineering, and Science News. N.p., 04 May 2016. Web. 27 Nov. 2016.

“Surgical Robot Market Size & Share | Industry Report, 2024.” Surgical Robot Market Size & Share | Industry Report, 2024. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Nov. 2016.

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