What impact could robotic surgery have on the future of healthcare?

  • 16 April 2021 (5 min read)

Key points

  • Technological advancements have seen the application of surgical robots broaden over time to include general surgery and delicate operations
  • Only 4% of surgery globally is done with robots, with most of these procedures performed in the US

Surgical robots have been around since the 1980s, with the Puma 560 used in 1985 by Kwoh et al to perform neurosurgical biopsies and non-laparoscopic surgery with greater precision.1

As technology and surgical developments have rapidly advanced over the years, so too has the general perception of robots – moving from science fiction to cutting-edge technology that could ultimately revolutionize healthcare.

More than 30 years later, the influence of surgical robots in operating rooms is growing at pace. Only 4% of surgery globally is done with robots2 , with most of these procedures performed in the US.

The benefits of robotic surgery include:

Enhanced dexterity: Surgeons are able to operate in very tight spaces in a body that would otherwise only be accessible through open surgery;

Greater precision and control: Surgical robots help surgeons with the positioning and manipulation of surgical instruments;

Shorter hospital stays: The smaller incisions will likely mean faster recovery times for patients and, generally, lower readmission rates.

Examples of procedures fueling innovation in robotic surgery

Over time, the application of surgical robots has significantly widened - from general laparoscopic procedures such as hernia and colorectal surgery to delicate operations on the heart and spine, knee replacements and removing brain tumors. Below are some examples of companies leading innovation in robotic surgery:

General surgery: At the forefront of the developments in these types of procedures is Intuitive Surgical*, which manufactures robotic-assisted medical equipment to support doctors and hospitals in minimally invasive surgery. It pioneered the groundbreaking da Vinci system, with almost 6,000 in existence around the world and a surgeon starting a da Vinci procedure every 25.4 seconds.7 In 2020, da Vinci Surgical Systems were used to perform 1.2mn procedures, a marginal increase from 2019 – and a significant figure, given that some surgeries had been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.8 Launched in 1998, Intuitive Surgical’s da Vinci system was one of the first robotic-assisted systems approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for general laparoscopic surgery. Intuitive’s status as a key player is backed up by a comprehensive training program for academics and future doctors, and reinvestments in research and development – its annual spend on the latter has almost tripled from $197mn in 2015 to over $500mn in 2019 and 2020.9

Spine surgery: Globus Medical* is a leading medical device manufacturer, focusing on musculoskeletal implants that provide spine care solutions for patients. One of its solutions is the ExcelsiusGPS, a robotic arm with complete navigation capabilities in one adaptable platform for accurate alignment in spine surgery. It means surgeons can visualize, plan and navigate patient anatomy – as well as receive navigation feedback throughout the procedure - in real-time. The company has also developed orthopedic trauma solutions in recent years to diversify beyond the spine market.

Knee replacements: The global share of older people (60+) is expected to increase by 42% from 2018 to 2030 – five times faster than the under 60 population.3 As you age, knee joints run the risk of becoming worn or damaged over time, with knee replacement surgery generally carried out on the 60-80 age bracket.4 Many people also live more active lifestyles into older age, compared to previous generations. This means more people may find they need knee surgery in their later years.

 Zimmer Biomet* is a US healthcare company that specializes in knee surgery. Its ROSA Knee robotic technology is designed to help a specially trained surgeon tailor the placement of knee implants. Zimmer has also developed its mymobility app, in collaboration with Apple, to inform care decisions and further enhance the communication between patients and their surgeons.

Expansion around the world

The global market for robotic surgery equipment is expected to achieve a compound annual growth rate of 30% until 2023.5 The COVID-19 pandemic meant that hospitals around the world were forced to delay many non-urgent surgeries in which robots could have supported. However, going forward, the containment of the disease through the rollout of vaccines will likely normalize hospitals’ operational capacity, likely leading to a surge in postponed robotic surgeries being performed.

With low market penetration, there are a number of new entrants into the space. For example, Johnson & Johnson* has a growing market presence, particularly with its acquisition of Auris Health – a robotic technology platform focused on lung diagnostics and procedures. Elsewhere, Medtronic*, a global medical device manufacturer, is in the process of developing a surgical robot.

With new entrants comes the potential for more innovation, thanks to disruptive technology like image-guided robotic interventions and enhanced motion control for greater precision.

Coupled with 5G and AI6 , developments in these areas will likely increase the types of robotic-assisted surgical procedures performed in the future – for example, the removal of tumors from parts of the body that would otherwise be difficult to reach.

  • YS Kwoh, J Hou, EA Jonckheere at al. A robot with improved absolute positioning accuracy for CT guided stereotactic brain surgery. IEEE Trans Biomed Eng 1988
  • Bank of America Merrill Lynch, global research estimates, December 2020
  • https://www.intuitive.com/en-us/about-us/company
  • https://www.annualreports.com/HostedData/AnnualReports/PDF/NASDAQ_ISRG_2020.pdf
  • https://www.annualreports.com/HostedData/AnnualReports/PDF/NASDAQ_ISRG_2020.pdf; https://www.annualreports.com/HostedData/AnnualReportArchive/i/NASDAQ_ISRG_2017.pdf
  • Bank of America Merrill Lynch Silver Dollar / Longevity Report, May 2016
  • NHS UK, August 2019
  • International Federation of Robotics 2020
  • AI refers to artificial intelligence

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