“The robot will see you now:” Future of medicine on display

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FOND DU LAC (WITI) -- "The robot will see you now!" Technology and tradition are coming together in hospitals like never before. As robots become more and more a part of routine medical procedures -- is the future already here?

"Cancer" has been called the scariest word in the English language.

"My mother died of cancer, and my brother died of cancer at a young age," 69-year-old Gary Bloedorn said.

When Bloedorn himself was diagnosed with prostate cancer, he thought it would completely change his life.

That was, until he talked to his doctor.

"He says 'well, I have a procedure that I do, robotic. It's called DaVinci robot that we use' -- and I hadn't heard of that," Bloedorn said.

Dr. Robert Santa-Cruz -- one of Wisconsin's leading robotic surgeons would perform the procedure with the help of the million dollar DaVinci robot system -- a revolutionary tool for surgeries of all kinds.

"I think of robotic surgery as essentially computer-assisted surgery. For the first time in history, we have a computer between the patient and the surgeon," Dr. Santa-Cruz said.

Dr. Santa-Cruz has performed more than 1,300 robotic procedures. He says the future is already here.

"I grew up watching Star Trek. For me, one day, I'll have a sensor, and I'll run it over your body, and we'll cure you. For me, robotics is here to stay for sure. Every year, the technology improves," Dr. Santa-Cruz said.

The DaVinci robot functions like an extension of the surgeon.

"It's an amazing perspective -- to feel like I've been miniaturized, and I'm inside the abdomen operating. It's truly a miracle," OB/GYN Theodore Miller said.

Nurses tend to the patient while the doctor works from a console off to the side.

"Which is basically a vision system, like an IMAX theatre, where you put your head into a chamber, and you're able to see a three-dimensional picture which is ten times magnified, and also has arms and foot pedals which allow us to manipulate the robot in a number different ways," Dr. Santa-Cruz said.

"What it allows a surgeon to do is remotely manipulate instruments inside the patient's abdomen that allows us to operate through very small incisions -- not have to make an incision large enough for my hand to get in," Miller said.

The robotic instruments have a full range of motion -- 270 degrees, unlike the old scalpel and scissors which simply open and close.

Because the incisions don't need to be large enough to fit the human hand, the procedures are much less invasive.

"After I came out of it, it was unbelievable. I wasn't experiencing any pain. I had the antibiotics you would normally get and I had one or two pain pills. I thought -- I gotta have some pain here. I had it Tuesday morning, and I was up that evening walking," Bloedorn said.

More than a million robotic surgeries have been completed in the decade since DaVinci was introduced.

According to a study published in the Journal for Healthcare Quality, there have been thousands of mishaps associated with DaVinci surgery.

In the majority of those cases, the patient was not hurt, but there were 174 injuries and 71 deaths related to the robot.

"A lot of critics of the robot will say, 'you know, there's been a lot of complications. There's been patients that haven't done well.' I often liken it to driving a brand new Ferrari straight into a wall. You have a perfectly new car, but a bad outcome because the driver did something they weren't supposed to. The same thing can happen with a robot," Dr. Santa-Cruz said.

That's why hospitals are spending more time having their surgeons trained on robotic procedures.

"I'm an old guy learning new tricks," Miller said.

Miller, a 53-year-old OB/GYN was trained on traditional techniques, but now swears by the robot.

"The advantages are tremendous -- quicker recovery for the patients, with small incisions, less blood loss, less infections, quicker return to work. It's been a miracle," Miller said.

Robotic surgery costs significantly more than traditional surgery, but doctors at Agensian Healthcare say the costs aren't passed on to insurers or patients.

"Why would we spend $1 million on equipment if we're not going to get paid more? We have a higher overhead for the inpatients. There's pharmacists, nurses, dietary, therapists. With the robot, we're able to do more outpatient within 24 hours. Any surgeries you can do as an outpatient, you're going to have a little higher profit margin on," Miller said.

"Robotics will stand the test of time. I think it's really only been in practice for 10 years. It's an early curve in the realm of medicine," Dr. Santa-Cruz said.

Because of it, patients like Bloedorn says cancer is no longer the scariest word.

"I'm proof that this does work and it's very -- it's just working. It just works and I'm proof of it," Bloedorn said.

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