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Scalpel. Sponge. WD-40.

BY Jonathan Strickland / POSTED March 3, 2014
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In an upcoming episode of our video series, I’ll be talking about robotic surgery — that is, surgery performed by robots, not surgery you’d perform on a robot. Doctors have been using robots in surgical procedures for a while now. These aren’t robots that cover the procedure entirely but rather tools the surgeon can guide themselves.

A recent study at UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center shows evidence that this approach could be superior to traditional open surgery — at least for some procedures. Science Daily reports that the study found robot-assisted surgery was more effective and efficient than surgery performed without robots. The robot-assisted procedures removed more cancer cells, which meant the patients didn’t need as much secondary treatment or as many follow-up procedures.

The study looked at prostate cancer patients who had surgery between 2004 and 2009. Of those cases, 5,556 represented patients who had robot-assisted surgery. The rest of the study — 7,878 patients — had traditional open surgeries. The researchers looked at the status of the outer edge of the removed prostate specimen (aka the margin). If the margin is “positive,” that means it has cancer cells that could indicate that more cancer cells were left behind. The patients who had robot-assisted surgery had five percent fewer instances of specimens with positive margins.

If the findings of this observational study hold true in future studies, this would be a big step forward in having robots in the surgical theater. Robotic surgery is somewhat controversial — it’s more expensive than traditional open surgery and some surgeons believe it doesn’t provide a measurable benefit. If this study is correct, that could soon change.

And it’s a big deal. While the robotic surgery is more expensive up front, it’s possible that it could save patients money in the long run if it’s more effective. More importantly, if doctors fail to remove enough prostate cancer cells, a patient could suffer a recurrence and the risk of death increases.

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