Robotic surgery as it is today had its roots in a defence project funded by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) – a division of the US Department of Defense that was also responsible for a project that led to the existence of the internet. In the early 90s DARPA was concerned with soldiers being injured on the battlefield and the lack of necessary medical attention, and so funded a project that would investigate how surgical procedures might be carried out on injured servicemen and women in the field. The result of that project was the beginning of work on a robotic device that could be operated from a distance by a surgeon to conduct the surgery required in the field.
By the end of that decade, the use of robotic technology in surgical procedures, particularly in urology and surgery on the prostate became quite common. The first bariatric procedure using robotic technology was the placement of a lap band, performed in Belgium in 1999.
For anyone unfamiliar with robotic surgery, it is easy to imagine an operating theatre populated with robots, but we're not quite there yet. Robotic surgery today involves a system equipped with several surgical 'arms' which are operated by the surgeon to conduct the procedure on the patient.
Robotic surgery follows the principles and techniques of laparoscopic surgery, where specialised surgical instruments are inserted into the body cavity via very small incisions to the abdomen, and the surgeon is able to view the procedure in real time on a high definition screen from images supplied by a miniature camera inside the body.
The major difference with robotic surgery is that the arms of the platform are capable of greater accuracy and dexterity than laparoscopic instruments which are still ultimately controlled by the hands of the surgeon. So, movements that are either physically impossible, or even just hard to do using human hands, are straightforward for a robotic platform.
This is also a major benefit in bariatric surgery particularly, where patients are a lot heavier than a normal person and where greater physical strength is required to maneouvre organs and tissue - especially the abdominal wall - during surgery. In addition to the strength factor, the robotic platform permits the surgeon to perform procedures with a greater degree of accuracy - a benefit both for overweight and normal weight patients.
A final benefit is that the surgeon can operate from the control panel a short distance away, which is less physically demanding than the traditional operating approach - this in turn allows the surgeon to devote their entire energy to the operation itself.
Weight loss surgery has grown substantially over the past ten years or so - in the US alone around two million people have undergone weight loss surgery - and of those a number need to have revisional surgery at some point. The greater accuracy of the robotic platform means that an increasing number of patients needing revision bariatric surgery are choosing to have this done robotically instead of via more conventional surgical techniques.
As robotic surgery technology improves and the number of surgeons fully trained in the use of robotic platforms increases, you are increasingly likely to be operated on 'by a robot' should you decide to undergo bariatric surgery.