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Portland hospital recruits robotic surgeon

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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

PORTLAND — Patients in Portland now have the option of a surgeon with a robotic bedside manner. In October, Legacy Good Samaritan Hospital began using da Vinci, a 1,000-pound, $1.5 million robotic surgical system that has four arms, for prostate cancer surgeries.

Although some doctors have compared the robot to “a great video game,” hospital administrative president Michael Skehan says it will also have uses for a number of specialties, including gynecology and cardiology.

Made by Intuitive Surgical of Sunnyvale, Calif., the robot acts in concert with the movements of a surgeon using its console in the operating room. While da Vinci can interpret its controller’s movements — it can even scale those movements up or down, without input from a surgeon — it cannot operate on its own. Michael Kaempf, a urologist who was the first surgeon to use Good Sam’s robot, says he likes using da Vinci because it can get to small, narrow places in the human body better than his own hands. Da Vinci’s wrist-like tool holders have much more dexterity than a human wrist, including 360-degree rotations and the ability to freeze on command — no matter how many cups of coffee the surgeon had that morning.

“If you can see it, you can make your hand [via the da Vinci’s tools] do it,” says Kaempf. This robot can even sew stitches around corners.

The Portland da Vinci isn’t the only one in Oregon — there’s another in Eugene. Skehan says it took less than a year for the hospital to go through the process of acquiring da Vinci.

All of the robot’s superior functionality adds up to a more minimally invasive surgery. According to Kaempf, patients have a shorter recovery time, less pain and less risk of infection. “Instead of a general stay of three to five days, this patient can go home the next day,” he says. Patients also have one-fifth to one-tenth the blood loss after a surgery with da Vinci compared to a conventional operation. Let’s just hope that the real surgeons can make up for their robotic partner’s lack of personality.

— Colleen Moran

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