Scientists explore updated rules for operations using surgical robots

Medical robots have been offering an electronic hand in operating theatres worldwide since 1985.

There have been plenty of advances in technology since then - but not in the rules that govern the use of robots. 

But that's about to change. Scientists from across the world are devising a way to update the rules.

The artistry of robotic surgery has long been dominated by one machine - Da Vinci. But that’s fast changing.

Patents are expiring. And new companies and tech are flooding the market.

"What we are building is a handheld device that is less expensive and what surgeons can do, they can operate in very confined spaces with precise, accurate and delicate maneuvers," said Emmanouil Dimitrakakis, chief executive of Panda Surgical.

Named after Leonardo Da Vinci, the robot was first used in New Zealand for prostate surgery in 2007.  Back then, one Da Vinci suite cost nearly $3 million.

It’s now used in surgeries - at both ends of the country - about 1000 times a year and it’s now available in the public sector, not just private.

"The robot is not autonomous, it is under complete control of the surgeon," said Auckland surgeon Sanket Srinivasa. "But it is significant advancement on traditional keyhole surgery - came into vogue from the 1990s onwards - I think it is not an unreasonable analogy to compare it from a flip phone to a smartphone."

And Robotic surgery is getting cleverer by the day.

Basic procedures like stitching can now be done without any human involvement and machines can even be controlled remotely - yes, patients in one country can be operated on by surgeons in another.

But here’s the problem.

"The current legislation isn't fit for the existing robots and certainly not fit for the robots that are emerging," said Hani Marcus, a consultant neurosurgeon. "They are just too complex."

So, 81 researchers from 12 countries are now finally putting together a new framework.

"We shouldn’t be afraid of advances in technology but we need to evaluate them properly and we need to make sure that they are safe, effective and value for money before we adopt them wholeheartedly," Peter McCulloch from the University of Oxford.

While not directly involved, Dr Srinivasa said New Zealand doctors will draw from the new framework.

"There are some very New Zealand specific issues we have to deal with, issues like geographical isolation and low population for example. So, I think it will be a guiding foundational document, but we are in the process of developing one for ourselves."

Scientists insist the new framework will go beyond just a clinical perspective on the use of robots and AI in surgery - patients are very much at the heart of it.

But the question still remains - how do patients feel about potentially being operated on by a robot with the surgeon on another continent?