Robots in surgery – change or revolution in work?

| Blog

Robotics is a hot topic. Robots have long performed mechanical work and transport, but are now also making an appearance in services by sensing, as companions and caring. One area of work where robots are making inroads are those work phases that require handiness and dexterity, such as surgery. Robots are part of the digitalization of work, which poses both opportunities and challenges for employees. How do robots change the work of surgeons? And what does this say more generally about the digitalization of expertise in fields that require special skills?

Surgery robots are especially useful when operating in constricted places. In comparison to open surgery, robot surgeries are less invasive. It is not a surprise therefore, that the use of robots in surgery become increasingly common since the beginning of 21st century.

During robot surgery, the surgeon remotely directs the instruments and 3D camera inside the body by manipulating control “hands” on a console. Traditional surgical skills are still needed and this isn’t automation. Instead, the robot radically changes what the surgeon can observe, because all the information comes visually through the 3D camera. And not only to the surgeon, but also to the whole operation team, because the picture from the robot’s camera is transmitted in real time to screens around the operating room. This and maintaining the robot change how the operation team work and interact.

The robot creates distance, but brings one closer, because the live picture offers a different and more direct perspective to the operation. With the help of robot videos, knowledge of micro anatomy has improved and highly targeted and precise operating techniques have been developed. However, there are also disadvantages: Learning to conduct robot surgery is time consuming and demanding.  At the moment learning to use the equipment may be a bigger developmental bottleneck than the technology itself. Surgery robots are expensive and with them operations concentrate both regionally and in terms of division of work. A broad virtual ecosystem of people and algorithms is needed to maintain and further develop surgery robots.

It is interesting to note that surgery robots also provide solutions to surgeon training. The console of the robot automatically saves videos from operations so that they are easy to re-watch and evaluate regardless of time and place. This makes the work of the surgeon transparent in a entirely new way. A training method based on the use of these videos was successfully tested in the WOBLE-project – combining expertise from the Technical Research Centre of Finland (VTT), the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health (FIOH) and Tampere University Hospital.

Even if the subject and purpose of the expertise does not change, the example of robotic surgery shows how digitalization makes work more transparent. It can help employees to take the subject better in hand and revolutionise the ways work is done and shared. Digitalization poses new challenges for employees and organisation of work;  this is where dialogue is needed about the direction development will take. Nevertheless, digitalization also offers new opportunities to learn, which each of us is challenged to pick up on.

Laura Seppänen is a Senior Researcher with the SWiPE-consortium and head of the project at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health (FIOH).


Translation by Marja Rautajoki.