Surgery robot introduced at Ottawa Hospital

The Ottawa Hospital is welcoming the newest member of its surgical staff: a robot that lets doctors remove men's prostates and repair faulty heart valves.

The hospital has already used the da Vinci Surgical System on 100 patients, but only officially welcomed the robot on Friday.

"We've had great success with helping 100 prostate cancer and gynecologic cancer patients, but we feel this is only going to get better as our program improves, as we expand to other cancers," said Rodney Breau, a surgical oncologist at the Ottawa Hospital.

The robot has three main parts: levers with surgical tools' look and feel, which the doctor operates at a console; a 3-D video system that uses tiny cameras inserted into a patient to provide the surgeon with a view of their work; and robotic arms that manipulate surgical instruments, which can cut, clamp, cauterize and suture human tissue.

Surgeons still control every aspect of an operation — the robot doesn't do any work on its own. But one advantage is that it can dampen the effects of a surgeon's natural hand tremors.

"So instead of what we would normally have — another surgeon or specialized surgical assistant moving things — we don't need that," Breau said. "The nice about the robot it never gets tired, so you can move something if you want to retract it and hold it there for a long period of time."

The machines are made by California-based Intuitive Surgical Inc. and cost about $1.4 million. The Ottawa Hospital raised $5 million to purchase its system, to cover operating costs.

The da Vinci robot is commonly used in the United States for prostate surgery, but so far in Canada, only a dozen facilities have one.

Proponents of robot-assisted surgery say it results in better outcomes for patients, with smaller incisions, less blood loss, a lower risk of infection and less post-operative pain. Critics maintain that most studies do not conclusively show that outcomes are better, and that the money spent on the expensive machines would be better used in other ways.

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