By Chris Barts
Doctors have come a long way from the early part of this century. Back then, while germs were known, little could be done to combat them aside from basic hygiene, alcohol and heat. A 1918 influenza epidemic claimed more than 25 million people worldwide. During World War I, more people died of infection than gunshots or gas. In short, medicine has progressed plenty over the years.
And few fields have seen more advances than surgery. As late as a century ago, anesthesia, the cornerstone of humane surgery, was derided as impossible. It took plenty of people to go under and not feel a thing during surgery to prove the safety and effectiveness of early drugs like ether and nitrous oxide. Those drugs, like everything else, have been replaced by more effective methods of doing the same thing. That is, in essence, what medical advances are all about. Barring a completely new disease, what plagues humans now has plagued humans since time immemorial. Tools have been developed that render medicine much more of a science than it once was, for example, pharmacists with pills instead of shamans with weeds. But medicine is still an art, and is therefore inexact in certain areas, such as diagnosis. So many diseases begin with flu-like symptoms (muscle cramps, nausea, tiredness, general malaise) that correctly diagnosing a disease either entails costly tests, which a patient is likely to resent if it's not a serious affliction, or a doctor relying on his own judgment, something everyone regrets in the unlikely but possible event of the disease being something worse than anticipated.
It is problems like that robotic doctors are designed to fix. Computer programs are already giving amazingly accurate diagnoses based on symptoms, and tailoring prescriptions to the individual patient. But perhaps the most dramatic, and potentially most useful, usage of robots came when ROBODOC assisted surgeons in a femur replacement surgery.
The problem was simple. Cementless artificial femurs, the best artificial femurs around, require exacting holes to be chiseled into the bone, sculpting the place the artificial femur's top structure will sit in the hip joint. Exacting, as in the gap between the bone and the artificial femur must be less than 0.25 mm at all points, yet if it touches large problems are caused. That is a very time-consuming, laborious, and draining operation for a human to perform, especially considering that the tool used is a specially sterilized chisel. The machine took over at this point in the surgery, using a high-speed cutting burr instead of a chisel and advanced CT images instead of sight. Once the place in the hip was sculpted, the humans resumed, performing the rest of the surgery. This may not sound like much, but over 1,000 people worldwide have been healed by use of the ROBODOC system. It's currently under review here and in Europe. ROBODOC is just the tip of the iceberg. It's time to use robotic doctors here, and save lives.