January 21, 2009 / 5:28 PM / 10 years ago

Robot assistant as good as human in some surgery

The new neurosurgery robot arm at the University of Calgary faculty of medicine demonstrates how it will do brain surgery in Calgary, Alberta April 17, 2007. REUTERS/Todd Korol

LONDON (Reuters) - Using a robot to operate a camera in gall bladder operations is as safe as working with a human, British researchers said on Wednesday in an analysis that underscores the effectiveness of robot technology in surgery.

While robots may not be ready to take over, they offer vast potential to do things such as allowing doctors to perform emergency operations without having to wait for a human assistant, Kurinchi Gurusamy of the Royal Free Hospital in London and colleagues said in the Cochrane Review journal.

The researchers looked at key-hole, or laparoscopic, surgery in which an assistant operates a camera that acts as the surgeon’s eyes during gall bladder removal. The surgery is quite common in the developing world where about 10 to 15 percent of people develop gallstones.

Robots are already used in tens of thousands of different procedures each year, and experts predict machines will increasingly take a bigger role in the operating room, boosting understaffed hospitals worldwide.

The review looked at different technologies, including Intuitive Surgical Inc’s market-leading da Vinci system, and found no differences in deaths, the need to switch to more complicated surgery, total operating time, or length of stay in hospital.

To see how well robots performed the job in place of humans, Gurusamy and colleagues analyzed data from five studies involving 453 people. The results showed no appreciable difference in the number of gall bladders that broke during surgery.

Some critics question the cost-effectiveness of robots when other treatments, such as cancer drugs, are being rationed. But proponents note prices will inevitably fall as usage and competition increase, as happened with once-costly computers.

Reporting by Michael Kahn; Editing by Louise Ireland

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