Answers to common questions about robotic surgery

Curious about robotic surgery? Here are some frequently asked questions and answers to help further understanding about this type of procedure.

What is robotic surgery?

Robotic surgery or robotic-assisted surgery is a surgical method that involves a surgeon using a computer to control a robotic arm. The arm is equipped with small surgical instruments and a tiny camera that allows for a three-dimensional view of the surgical area. The robotic “wrist” mimics the surgeon’s movements, allowing the surgeon to work with great precision in delicate areas. Robotic surgery is considered minimally invasive surgery because the surgery is performed through a few small incisions (cuts) in the body.

What are the different types of robotic surgery?

At Main Line Health we have robotic surgeons in a number of specialties, including thoracic surgery, cardiac surgery, colorectal surgery, general surgery, surgical oncology, urologic, gynecologic oncology and gynecologic surgery. Within each specialty there are minimally invasive surgery options which may include robotic surgery, if appropriate. Meet our surgeons to learn more about specific robotic-assisted surgeries at Main Line Health.

Is robotic surgery better than regular (open) surgery?

Every surgical approach depends on the decision and skill of the surgeon. And while some surgeries are better performed as open or traditional surgery, others may be better with robotic assistance. These are individual decisions made between you and your surgeon. Your surgeon will present you with your surgical options and the benefits and risks of each.

Is robotic surgery the same as minimally invasive surgery?

Robotic surgery is an example of a minimally invasive surgery. Laparoscopic surgery and endoscopic surgery are also types of minimally invasive surgery. Laparoscopic surgery involves small incisions, usually in the abdomen (belly), and a thin tube through which a tiny camera and instruments are used to perform the surgery. Endoscopic surgery involves use of a tiny camera that can examine the inside of an organ and instruments that may be introduced through a body opening, such as the nose, throat or rectum. A robot is sometimes used to “assist” these other types of minimally invasive surgeries.

What is the difference between laparoscopic surgery and robotic surgery?

Laparoscopic surgery and robotic surgery are types of minimally invasive surgery. Like robotic surgery, laparoscopic surgery involves performing surgery through small incisions with minimal impact on the body. Robotic surgery is also performed through small incisions but with a 3D-magnified camera that allows the surgeon to see a three-dimensional view of the surgical area vs. the two-dimensional view provided with laparoscopic surgery. And while laparoscopic surgery involves the surgeon performing surgery directly on the person’s body, robotic surgery involves the surgeon performing from a nearby computer station and controlling the robotic arm and surgical instruments remotely.

Does the robot do surgery by itself?

No, the surgical robot is not able to perform on its own. It requires a skilled robotic surgeon to control all of its movements and the movements of the surgical instruments.

What happens if the surgical robot fails?

Although it is highly unlikely that the robot will have a mechanical failure, it is possible. If such an event were to occur, the surgeon has all the necessary skills to perform the surgery manually, without robotic assistance.

What are robotic surgery advantages?

There are advantages for the surgeon as well as the patient. For surgeons, the surgical robot enables the surgeon to get a three-dimensional and therefore much more accurate view of the surgical area. The surgical robot instruments also enable greater precision in small areas where it would be more difficult for the surgeon’s hand to maneuver. Having the “assistance” of the robot also helps relieve surgeons of fatigue during long surgeries. Because robotic surgery is minimally invasive, patients generally experience faster healing (from fewer incisions), less bleeding, less scarring, and a shorter recovery time.

What are robotic surgery disadvantages?

When a surgeon uses a surgical robot, the surgeon works remotely at a nearby computer station and is therefore “removed” from the patient’s body. Because the surgeon is not cutting into the body directly, the surgeon may not notice right away if there is a problem, such as an injury to a nearby organ. There have also been some instances of surgical robots causing burns and punctures. There is a slight risk of mechanical failure due to power outage or a malfunction with the surgical robot itself. Robotic surgery is also more expensive than other types of surgeries and requires more set-up time.

Is robotic surgery dangerous?

Robotic surgery is no more or less dangerous than other types of surgery. Robotic surgery risk includes the risk of bleeding, infection, scarring, and problems related to anesthesia.

Is there special training for robotic surgery?

Using a surgical robot does require training and practice although there is no credentialing organization for robotic surgery. At Main Line Health we require our robotic surgeons to have performed a minimum number of robotic surgeries and to continue performing a certain number of robotic surgeries each year (a higher number of surgeries leads to better outcomes and fewer complications). Our robotic surgeons must also follow strict standards of conduct, participate in quality and performance reviews, and observe certain safety and regulatory goals.

Is robotic surgery more expensive?

Yes. Robotic surgery procedures generally cost more than other minimally invasive procedures; however, this increased cost is not usually felt by the patient.

Is robotic surgery covered by insurance?

Robotic surgery is a type of minimally invasive surgery, which is covered by many insurance plans. Be sure to check with your own insurance provider to learn more about your coverage of robot-assisted minimally invasive surgery.

What to expect after robotic surgery?

Individual recovery times vary and length of hospital stay may also depend on what kind of surgery you have. In general, because robotic surgery is minimally invasive, you will have less pain because the surgery was performed through a few small cuts. Robotic surgery recovery time is generally shorter and you may be able to move around sooner and get back to daily activities more quickly compared to open surgery recovery. Nonetheless, you should expect to have some pain and discomfort after robotic surgery. Your doctor will provide you with follow-up care instructions, including information about pain medication and making your next appointment, as well as the long-term outlook for your condition.

How should I choose a robotic surgeon?

You should choose a surgeon based on reputation, experience and expertise. A good surgeon will use whatever tools the surgeon is most comfortable with and which are most appropriate for your surgery. There are excellent surgeons who use robotic assistance and there are excellent surgeons who perform minimally invasive surgeries without robotic assistance, or who perform open surgeries just as successfully.

What is the importance of high volume when it comes to robotic surgery?

The more practice a surgeon gets, the better the surgeon becomes. The same goes with robotic surgery. With practice and experience (volumes), the robotic surgeon’s skill improves and the risk of complication decreases. Higher volumes generally imply better outcomes for patients. There are some surgeons who may know how to use a surgical robot, but they don’t get a lot of practice and therefore don’t have the level of expertise and familiarity that our robotic surgeons have at Main Line Health.

Am I a candidate for robotic surgery?

Your surgeon will discuss all of your surgical options with you. Robotic surgery may be recommended for certain patients and certain types of surgeries while it may not be an option for others.

To schedule an appointment with a specialist at Main Line Health, call 1.866.CALL.MLH (225.5654) or use our secure online appointment request form.