New crop of robots to vie for space in the operating room

Thu Jul 28, 2016 1:00am EDT
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By Susan Kelly

CHICAGO, July 28 (Reuters) - Even though many doctors see need for improvement, surgical robots are poised for big gains in operating rooms around the world.

Within five years, one in three U.S. surgeries - more than double current levels - is expected to be performed with robotic systems, with surgeons sitting at computer consoles guiding mechanical arms. Companies developing new robots also plan to expand their use in India, China and other emerging markets.

Robotic surgery has been long dominated by pioneer Intuitive Surgical Inc, which has more than 3,600 of its da Vinci machines in hospitals worldwide and said last week the number of procedures that used them jumped by 16 percent in the second quarter compared to a year earlier.

The anticipated future growth - and perceived weaknesses of the current generation of robots - is attracting deep-pocketed rivals, including Medtronic Inc and a startup backed by Johnson & Johnson and Google. Developers of the next wave aim to make the robots less expensive, more nimble and capable of performing more types of procedures, company executives and surgeons told Reuters.

Although surgical robots run an average of $1.5 million and entail ongoing maintenance expenses, insurers pay no more for surgeries that utilize the systems than for other types of minimally-invasive procedures, such as laparoscopy.

Still, most top U.S. hospitals for cancer treatment, urology, gynecology and gastroenterology have made the investment. The robots are featured prominently in hospital marketing campaigns aimed at attracting patients, and new doctors are routinely trained in their use.

Surgical robots are used in hernia repair, bariatric surgery, hysterectomies and the vast majority of prostate removals in the United States, according to Intuitive Surgical data.

Doctors say they reduce fatigue and give them greater precision.   Continued...