Rewriting Life

Robot in the OR

The da Vinci robot can shorten surgical recovery times.

  • by Emily Singer
  • June 22, 2010
  • Over the last decade, the da Vinci robot, developed by California-based Intuitive Surgical, has appeared in hundreds of operating rooms around the world. It offers a new approach to laparoscopic procedures, which involve threading surgical tools through small holes in the body rather than making large incisions. Traditional laparoscopy uses tools with limited movement and offers surgeons a flat, 2-D view, but the $2.5 million da Vinci has a sophisticated imaging system and incorporates more flexible tools. <br /><br />In an operating room at Children’s Hospital Boston, surgeons use the robot to repair a three-year-old patient’s bladder. The surgeons sit across the room from the patient, manipulating surgical tools through a console.
The robot has three arms, two of which can be tipped with a number of different tools, such as a scalpel, scissors, forceps, or a needle driver for suturing. The third arm holds the imaging endoscope, which lets surgeons see inside the body.
Four rotating discs control the tools’ movement, enabling fine precision and multiple degrees of freedom.
A hollow port is inserted into the abdomen so that the small tools can be fed into the patient.
This story is part of our July/August 2010 Issue
See the rest of the issue
Subscribe
A surgeon uses a tool in the patient.
Once the tools are attached to the arms, which are covered in plastic to maintain sterility, the large machine is wheeled over to the patient.
The robot’s endoscope holds two small imaging devices that capture two independent images. These are sent to the console, where the surgeon views them as a single stereoscopic image.
This view makes it easier for the surgeon to accurately gauge the position of the tools relative to fragile tissue. Surgeon Hiep Nguyen controls the tools by means of two multijointed handles on the console.
His swift movements resemble those of an expert video gamer. Nguyen jokes that today’s gamers will make tomorrow’s best surgeons.
The surgeons’ progress can be seen on a number of screens placed around the room.
And in the minute movements of the robot’s hulking arms.
After the procedure, surgeons sew up the small incisions and cover them with bandages.

Nguyen says the system saves his hospital money because patients can go home sooner than they do after conventional open surgeries. However, the benefits of operating with the robot are less clear in procedures, such as prostat­ectomy, that are routinely performed with traditional laparoscopic tools already. Nguyen, a strong advocate for robotic surgery, would like to see the technology advance faster and become less costly. “The system is very expensive because only one company makes it now,” he says. “We need more competition to drive down the price.”
Become an MIT Technology Review Insider for in-depth analysis and unparalleled perspective.
Subscribe today

Uh oh–you've read all five of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium

$179.95/yr US PRICE

More from Rewriting Life

Reprogramming our bodies to make us healthier.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe and become an Insider.

  • Insider Premium {! insider.prices.premium !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Our award winning magazine, unlimited access to our story archive, special discounts to MIT Technology Review Events, and exclusive content.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

    Access to the Magazine archive. Over 24,000 articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips.

    Special Discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

    First Look. Exclusive early access to stories.

    Insider Conversations. Join in and ask questions as our editors talk to innovators from around the world.

  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}* Best Value

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus ad-free web experience, select discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

    Access to the Magazine archive. Over 24,000 articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips.

    Special Discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

  • Insider Basic {! insider.prices.basic !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Six issues of our award winning magazine and daily delivery of The Download, our newsletter of what’s important in technology and innovation.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

You've read of free articles this month.