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How One Company Is Ushering in the Future of Healthcare

By Motley Fool Staff - Apr 21, 2016 at 11:22AM

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Here's how one company's robots are changing the market for patient surgery.

As more surgeons embrace the use of Intuitive Surgical's (ISRG 1.16%) robotic systems, this company is growing rapidly.

In this clip from The Motley Fool's Industry Focus: Healthcare podcast, analyst Kristine Harjes and contributor Todd Campbell discuss the benefits of robotic surgery versus traditional surgery, and offer up insights into how these systems work and whether or not their use may increase in the future.

A full transcript follows the video.

This podcast was recorded on April 13, 2016. 

Kristine Harjes: We are talking about some crazy, futuristic-seeming things that are already here and already on the market. The first one we wanted to start with is robotic surgery, which seems like a really crazy concept, but it's here, it's happening.

Todd Campbell: It's amazing! You know we do a lot of prep work, obviously, whenever we're getting ready for our shows. And the one I was doing the prep work for today's show, I couldn't help but think about some of the favorite science fiction movies. Kristine, do you like Matt Damon?

Harjes: I am so bad at pop culture, I don't even know who that is. That's embarrassing to admit, I'm sorry. (laughs)

Campbell: Well, he had this movie, and it was called Elysium. In Elysium, there was this healthcare pod, and you could just lay down in it, it would diagnose you and cure you. And I started thinking, how do we get to that point from where we are today? And what's fascinating is, I think your one core building block of getting to those healthcare pods is going to be advances in robotic surgery.

Harjes: You know, I almost wanted to make a reference to ... (laughs) there are so many people who are about to judge me for not knowing the difference, but it's either Star Wars or Star Trek, where there's some sort of magical diagnosis machine. Do you know what I'm getting at?

Campbell: Your judging is going to begin immediately.

Harjes: I know, (laughs) we'll to get some listener emails about this, my apologies. But, I'm sure most of you listening know what I'm talking about. Fingers crossed, anyways.

Campbell: Yeah, Star Trek and the hologram, and the whole concept that you could have virtual caregivers.

Harjes: There you go.

Campbell: That reality is getting closer than many people may realize.

Harjes: Exactly. To your point, it sounds like science fiction. But this is something that's out here, particularly with a company called Intuitive Surgical that makes this device called the da Vinci robot.

Campbell: Yeah. They are the granddaddy of robotic surgery, no question. They pioneered the space. It's a company that's been around since the mid-90s, and they licensed technology for robotic surgery that was developed in the '80s by a company named SRI International that had government contracts to build a system, if you will, that would allow them to conduct surgery on the battlefield more efficiently. Da Vinci has been slowly but steadily growing and becoming a big part of various surgical procedures ever since. I think the first da Vinci came onto the market about '99 or 2000. And now, it's one of the most commonly used ways to do things like hysterectomy and prostate surgery.

Harjes: So, the question that comes to mind for me thinking about robotic surgery would be, is it worth it? I guess there are plenty of elements to that question. Is it worth it from a cost standpoint, or efficacy? What do you think there? Is this something that makes sense to adopt?

Campbell: You look at these machines, and they're kind of scary-looking. They've got all sorts of arms that look like tentacles, and instruments that can go inside your body, and move things around and stuff. So, yeah, these are futuristic systems, and you have to wonder, is this system really any better than Mr. XYZ who has been conducting open surgeries for 30 years, and does four or five of them a day. The argument for robotic surgery, however, is that you're talking about the ability to conduct certain surgeries with very small incision points, rather than large incision points.

Theoretically, that could reduce the amount of time in recovery, reduce costs to the system by keeping people out of intensive care units, and getting them back into their homes more quickly. These machines are also fairly easy to control, and they're steady. You don't have to worry as much, if you will, about a human hand and potential tremors or anything like that while conducting surgery. So, there are arguments you can make that say, "This robotic surgery offers advantages to the traditional person peering into a person's abdomen to conduct these." I would say that, overall, one of the biggest advantages is the ability to magnify the workspace, if you will, for the doctor. These machines have cameras, and these cameras magnify what the doctor is seeing. And now, it's like zooming in on a PowerPoint presentation and being able to see every single little detail, rather than staring at it in 2D.

Harjes: Yeah, that's pretty cool. It's almost like, you're not completely removing the human element, you're just making the doctors superhuman. When you're talking about the doctor's hand shaking or something like that, it reminded me, earlier today, I was talking to one of my co-workers about going to the dentist, and she mentioned that her dentist, last time she was there, mentioned that he had just bought a Fitbit. And my immediate thought there was, "Oh my gosh, what if he's doing something to my tooth and happens to make his steps and it starts vibrating? And he's working on my mouth?" That's just one example of the human error that can be involved here.

Campbell: (laughs) Right. And it might be helpful, too, to paint a virtual picture, if you will, for our listeners. Essentially, what we're talking about here, these da Vinci systems, they're systems that sit near the bed where the surgery would be performed, and the surgeon actually will sit behind in a control console that's operated by levers that are operated by the hands and by foot pedals. They're staring into almost goggles, attached to a camera with these instruments, and that allows them that 3D experience as they're conducting the surgery. So, their hands and their feet are moving the instruments as they're doing it, so they're not fully removed. But, again, you could argue there are some advantages.

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