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Robodocs to the rescue

When Dilip Khusti, a 52-year-old senior manager, learnt that he would be under a robot’s knife for his knee surgery, he feared for his life.

india Updated: Jul 23, 2008 02:32 IST
Aniruddh Venu

When Dilip Khusti, a 52-year-old senior manager, learnt that he would be under a robot’s knife for his knee surgery, he feared for his life.

“It is just one of those things. It is reassuring to know that a human being is cutting you open. And in India, the techniques are not very well developed I thought,” he said. “But it went successfully and I was discharged three days after the surgery. I could return to my routine life a week after, it was so precise.”

Welcome to the sci-fi world where robots have the scalpel and the docs have the remote control, sitting behind a computer screen, giving electronic instructions to the machine. With India as much a part of the technology advancement as any other country in the world, medicine is no longer the way we used to know.

Except, of course, in medical schools of the country. Doctors lament that the courses in India have not been updated. A doctor needs to travel abroad at his own expense and learn to operate these man-machines, obtain a certification from a recognised institute before he can operate on a patient.

Robots currently perform three types of surgeries — remote, minimally invasive and unmanned. The big edge is precision. There are two types of robotic surgeries: standalone, where the surgeon feeds commands in advance leaving the robot to do the rest, and operational mode, where a robotic arm is used as an instrument. The surgeon can be a few metres away or in another room viewing the patient through an eyepiece and operating through a console. “What was science fiction yesterday is fast becoming reality. Now even complicated surgeries like angioplasty can be performed by robotic remote controls very soon,” said Dr Gannesh Kumar of Hiranandani Hospital.

He claimed that the robots were most useful in long operations, particularly in nerve or tissue reconstruction processes. “Surgeons often tire easily after performing microscopic surgeries that last for hours. But robots do not,” he said.

The technology is new and only a handful of hospitals in the country have them. “The surgeries now performed robotically are for cancer of the prostrate, stomach and pancreas. For these, robots are particularly effective,” said Dr Gustakh Davar of Hinduja Hospital.

In some of robotic surgeries in cardiology, the surgeon may not even need to be in the operation theatre, especially those using radiation. “This enables the surgeon to perform a number of surgeries without being constantly being exposed to radiation,” said Kumar.

If India was lagging behind, it was in training and not technology transfer, rued Dr C.J. Thakkar, a specialist in robot-aided joint and hip replacement surgery. “In India, companies which manufacture these robots provide training but there are separate courses for this kind of surgery in countries like the US and Germany,” he said.

There is a word of caution too. The technology is new and still to be standardised for different medical situations.