ITV News Science Correspondent Martin Stew reports on the next generation of surgical robots poised to disrupt healthcare systems worldwide.
Words by Emily Pringle, Health and Science Producer
Would you be happy to be operated on by a surgical robot, being controlled solely by artificial intelligence (AI)?
Or, how would you feel being stitched up by a robot, which is remotely operated by a surgeon on a different continent?
These are just some of the questions that a new robotic surgery framework, led by scientists from University College London, is aiming to solve.
With the next generation of surgical robots poised to disrupt healthcare systems worldwide, just how ready are the ethics surrounding robots and medical artificial intelligence?
Since the first surgical robot was introduced in 1985, many more companies are producing surgical robots.
Today, 81 researchers from 12 different countries have released the results of joining forces to agree on a safe criteria for increasingly autonomous robots, as their use in medical settings increases worldwide.
Whilst robots were only used in one out of every 400 NHS surgical procedures last year, the use of robotics is rising fast. In the past four years it's nearly doubled, from 24,647 to 47,966 procedures.
Hani Marcus, from University College London and a lead author for the framework, explained that it will provide a safety net, particularly with the emergence of AI and autonomous robots.
"All of a sudden, there's not just one robot but many robots in widespread use, so it's a good time to have a framework to evaluate them," he said.
The framework considers the economic value and sustainability, as well as major impacts on healthcare systems.
It also looks at the integrations of AI into robotic systems and the unique ethical considerations involved in using a robot during surgery, stating that a standard process for determining responsibility for errors when AI is used should be adopted.
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However, despite taking steps towards becoming autonomous, robotic procedures still require surgeons to perform the surgery.
Surgeons use hand-controlled consoles to operate and guide the robotic instruments in real time.
There are a few reasons that the robotic tools are helpful.
Firstly, the small instruments have a greater range of motion than the human hand and can also magnify the surgical area, making the surgery less invasive.
Additionally, robot-assisted surgeries can be less taxing on the surgeon, ideally meaning surgeons can treat more patients each day, which in turn should help the 7.6 million NHS patient backlog.
In 2023, Rob George was one of the first patients to have his prostate removed by robotic tool, Hugo. Rob was able to leave the hospital the following day.
Speaking after the surgery, Rob said: "It's a no-brainer. If you need surgery and it's possible to have robotic surgery, have robotic surgery.
"It's far less traumatic, it's far more effective, it's safer. A day or two in hospital, a week or two to recover, a month or two back to fitness and cure.
"There's no reason now for anyone to fear surgery. Get checked out whilst it's an option."
The new framework provides recommendations for how the robot should function across the entire lifespan, including pre-clinical and early clinical evaluation, and long-term monitoring, as well as technical evolution.
The Idea, Development, Exploration, Assessment and Long-term monitoring (IDEAL) framework provides practical recommendations for developers, clinicians, patients and healthcare systems.
A wide range of perspectives are also considered, including economics, surgical training, human factors, ethics, patient perspectives and sustainability.
Mr Marcus said: "This framework goes beyond providing just a clinical perspective on the use of robots and AI in surgery.
"The statement was written with patients, and they are very much at the heart of it."
He added: "It's a broad remit, but having so many different perspectives has given us clear guidance for bringing these technologies into the operating theatre."
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