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SCIENCE REPORT - October 4, 2001: Robotic Surgery - 2001-10-03

This is the VOA Special English Science Report.

French doctors and American scientists have reported performing a complete operation in which the doctor was outside the operating room. This kind of operation is known as robotic surgery.

Jacques Marescaux performed the operation last month. He removed the gallbladder of a sixty-eight-year-old woman. Doctor Marescaux was in an office in New York City. The patient was in a hospital in Strasbourg, France. The operation was described in the publication Nature.

A doctor in the operating room in Strasbourg prepared the patient. The doctor placed medical instruments and a small video camera in her stomach area. Doctor Marescaux in New York watched the patient on a video screen. Then he moved controls that sent messages to the robot machine in the operating room. The robot moved the instruments that removed the woman’s gallbladder. The woman fully recovered and left the hospital two days later.

Doctors have used similar robots in other operations. But the doctor has never been so far away from the patient.

Experts say the main problem with such robotic surgery is guaranteeing high-speed telecommunications between the doctor and the robot. Technology must be able to reduce the time delay between a doctor’s order to a robot to move the instruments and the robot’s actions.

Experts say successful robotic surgery will improve operations. For example, the robot can make much smaller movements than a person can. The robot movement is steady and will never shake. A robot machine can turn instruments in ways that a doctor’s hands cannot.

Doctors say such robotic surgery will make possible safer and better operations in the future. They say it will improve doctor training. It also will mean that doctors could operate on people in dangerous places far away. These might include soldiers in battle areas or astronauts in space. And it could mean that people could have operations done by top doctors without having to travel to the city where the doctor works.

The use of robotic surgery is now being tested in the United States. About one-hundred people have had operations using the new technology. They have had stomach and gallbladder operations. Doctors also are using the new technology to sew blood vessels together during heart operations.

This VOA Special English Science Report was written by Nancy Steinbach.