Can doctors feel what they are doing during robotic surgery?

One downside to robotic-assisted minimally invasive surgery is the physical separation between the doctor’s hands and the person being operated on. Manipulating the robotic arms while sitting at a console provides a better range of motion—a welcome advantage when doctors are operating in a tight space and/or need fine motor control for reconstructive activities. But the loss of haptic feedback—the tactile sensation that they are used to—requires surgeons to rely on visual clues, which can be challenging.

At UCLA’s Center for Advanced Surgical and Interventional Technology (CASIT), researchers have developed a pneumatic balloon-based tactile-feedback system for use with the da Vinci robotic surgical technology. The system features pressure sensors within the graspers of the robotic instruments; these sensors send an electronic signal to a peripheral interface processor that translates it to proportional pressures applied to the doctor’s fingers, lending the appropriate haptic feedback.

“For all of its advantages, the robot has removed the sense of touch that surgeons rely on quite heavily for many operations. This type of haptic feedback, if it is shown to be effective in improving surgical results, would be a major advance,” says Erik Dutson, MD, executive medical director of CASIT. The system, funded by the Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center and the U.S. Department of Defense, is still in the experimental phase, but it may ultimately be applied in a variety of settings, from telesurgery and surgical training to prostheses that could allow amputees to experience tactile sensations.

Doctors can't literally feel what they're doing during robotic surgery. The visual field, in three dimensions, is enormously helpful for the surgeon.

Even though the doctor is at a console while performing robotic surgery, he or she can feel the tactile sensation of surgery.

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