Robotic surgery is here to stay. The upsides are obvious: robots never get tired or nervous during an operation, and their hands don’t shake. The assistance of a surgical robot allows even mediocre surgeons to perform interventions that used to be the domain of an elite corps. In the United States alone, the da Vinci surgical system from Intuitive Surgical was used in nearly 400,000 operations last year. But even robodocs are not infallible.
Patients and operating staff are frequently struck by robotic arms, and there have been reports of robots that wouldn’t release tissue grasped during surgery. According to Paolo Fiorini, professor at the University of Verona, patients have filed 1700 lawsuits against Intuitive Surgical in the United States. Fiorini is the principal investigator of the EU-sponsored SAFROS-Project, which aims to improve patient safety in robotic surgery procedures.
Problems often occur because surgeons lack experience and proper training in guiding the robotic helpers. “Nobody explains to surgeons the implications of working with a robot, the peculiarity and characteristics,” Fiorini told medtechinsider. “Robotic motions often are completely unpredictable to surgeons.” Since the robotic procedure seems simple and intuitive, surgeons—possibly misled by manufacturer claims—take their training too lightly and are not prepared to cope with difficulties when something goes awry, adds Fiorini.
To help remedy this, SAFROS has developed a virtual surgical simulator, which helps trainees to improve their skills in a variety of simulated environments. SAFROS researchers also have designed an integrated operating room monitoring system that collects data from noninvasive sensors and cameras to help in the creation of a working environment where humans and robots can safely interact. The setup has been tested with two sets of surgical robots and has resulted in the designation of safe areas as well as basic collision avoidance features. The research team also came up with new algorithms for the automatic recognition of organs in ultrasound and CT imaging, which can be used for improving robotic guidance during surgery.
SAFROS, an an acronym for Patient Safety in Robotic Surgery, is funded with nearly €4 million through the DG CONNECT Seventh Framework Programme. The 36-month programme was coordinated by the University of Verona in Italy and involved partners from several other European countries as well as the World Health Organization.