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Study: Robot surgeons as good as humans, despite what your doc might say

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A robotic surgeon bested its human counterpart by stitching up a pig’s intestine just a few months ago. Although human supervisors occasionally gave the robot a hand, the medical and robotic breakthrough seemed to herald an era in which human surgeons played a secondary role to machines.

But new researcher on robotic surgery for prostate cancer suggests that, despite the oft-perceived benefit having a robot-assisted operation, humans and machines are pretty much equal when it comes to a patient’s recovery months after surgery.

Robot-assisted prostatectomy allows a surgeon to operate robotic arms remotely from a console. This method has been used for the past 16 years and is now often recommended by practitioners, who suggest it provides better outcomes for patients.

The traditional method is an open surgery, in which the patient’s prostate is removed through an incision in the lower abdomen. To this day, advocates of the traditional method highlight the lack of strong evidence for the robotic method, according to the study’s authors. Nonetheless, robot-assisted prostatectomies continue to grow in popularity around the world.

To test the results of the competing methods, Gardiner and his team examined over 300 Australian men who had either traditional or robotic prostate surgery for three months following operation. They examined the control of cancer, sexual function, bowel function, urinary continence, and time spent away from work, finding no significant difference between either group.

“Contrary to common clinical belief, our research found no significant statistical differences between the robotic approach and open surgery at this early time-point,” the University of Queensland’s Center for Clinical Research’s Professor Robert “Frank” Gardiner said in a news release.

“Surgery has long been the dominant approach for the treatment of localized prostate cancer, with many clinicians now recommending the robotic method to patients,” Gardiner said. “Many clinicians claim the benefits of robotic technology lead to improved quality of life and oncological outcomes — but our randomized clinical trial has found no statistical difference between the two groups at 12 weeks follow-up.”

This study doesn’t mean mechanical surgeons like the Da Vinci surgical system will soon be out of a job, but it does highlight the importance of high-quality evidence in support of a new technology, particularly if that technology is high-cost and quickly adopted within the industry.

Gardiner and his team will continue their study, testing quality of life in patients for the years following their procedure. Until then, he said, “We encourage patients to consider all their treatment options and choose an experienced surgeon rather than choose a specific surgical approach.”

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