During an endoscopy meeting in Lisbon the use of robots was extensively discussed and this promted us to write this text.
Laparoscopic surgery really started to be developed at the end of the eighties ie more than 20 years ago. Since then we witnessed its development and the progressive demonstration of its superiority in comparison with open traditional surgery. Patients indeed have less pain, a shorter hospital stay without a scar while the surgical intervention and the complication rate remain the same.
As milestones in gynaecology we had after minor surgery, the introduction of the hysterectomy in 1990, endometriosis surgery, the pelvic floor surgery and promontofixation in the mid 90 followed by lympnode resection. After 2000 not so much did change change anymore neither concerning surgical techniques nor for equipment. This can best be judged by the live surgeries performed at the yearly meetings of the ESGE, of the AAGL and at many other dedicated meetings.
Yet the introduction of endoscopic surgery into main street gynaecology was much slower. Many of the endoscopists indeed did their last laparotomy somewhere in the last century (for me in 1996) and performed all interventions by laparoscopy, except some extreme cases as hysterectomies for a uterus of more than 2000 grams. This is in sharp contrast with the overall situation in most countries. In Belgium and Italy and the USA the percentages of total laparoscopic hysterectomies, considerd level I still does not reach 10%. For level II surgeries and certainly for the more advanced level III surgery the figures are even lower. The best explanation for this is that endoscopic surgery is technically much more difficult than we anticipated 20 years ago and that it requires a long and dedicated training to perform. In addition it has become obvious that endoscopic surgery cannot be done a little bit : unless doing surgery for at least 1 to 2 days a week the necessary skills will not be developed. In gynaecology this observation is pointing to another major problem : there is not enough surgery available in order to permit every gynaecologist to perform every week 1 day of surgery.
Then the technology of robotic surgery was developed. This undoubtedly is beautifil technology with some theoretical advantages as decreasing tremor, more articulated movements which can be scaled down. The introduction of robotic surgery to the human however occurred without clinical validation and even today 2010 I am not aware of any proven benefit of robotic surgery in comparison with conventional laparoscopic surgery, not in gynaecology, not in urology nor in any other surgical discipline . This seems strange when considering the number of robots used in Belgium and in the USA. Following analysis of robotic surgery we would make the following conclusions
1. We all agree that robotic surgery is not superior nor faster than conventional endoscopic surgery provided the endoscopist is a good endoscopic surgeon.
2. Robotic surgery is much more expensive than conventional laparoscopic surgery considering the price around 2.000.000 €, the maintenance cost and the material cost of a few thousand € for each intervention. It seems irrealistic that countries will be able to incorporate this into their public medical expenses.
3. The learning curve of robotic surgery is claimed to be shorter than the learning curve of conventional endoscopic surgery. Yet no data exist to substantiate this claim. Doing robotic surgery no doubt is more comfortable for the surgeon who can sit.
4. The complexity of robotic instruments is incompatible with being solid : therefore robotic surgery seem not to be appriopriated for hysterectomies, especially not for a large uterus nor for larger myoma’s. Also larger sutures as used to close the uterus after larger myomectomies cannot be used.
4. A new generation of robotic surgeons is emerging who never performed laparoscopic surgery and thus went from laparotomy to robotic surgery. This I consider a dangerous situation, since these surgeons will be unable to deal with eventual complications. They will have to do a laparotomy which means at best a crucial loss of time.
In conclusion, while being beautiful technology which merits scientific validation (in animals) robotic surgery today is not superior to conventional endoscopic surgery for all indications are am aware of. Its use seem to be limited to those who are unable or unwilling to make the effort of becoming an endoscopic surgeon. The new generation of robotic surgeons, who go directly from laparotomy to robotic surgery are potentially dangerous when complications occur since they they will have to do a laparotomy losing time which might be crucial.
Prof P.R. Koninckx and Drssa A. Ussia