Open source robotic surgery system in the works

While the Da Vinci surgical system is the only robot with U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval--and the target of plenty of criticism--researchers are looking to develop surgical robots based on open source technology, reports Scientific American.

Taking a page from software development, it would involve a basic design that wouldn't change from device to device and involve a community of developers to improve it and create their own innovations.

Researchers from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the University of Washington say that by using open source, the multimillion-dollar price of the system would fall, as would the learning curve for using it.

The open source system--called the Raven--has been in development for more than a decade, with versions sent to universities in the United States, Canada and France. Each of those 14 Raven II robots has a unique IP address and is networked to the others, so researchers can collaborate on experiments and share software. 

The Raven II has two mechanized arms, a camera and screen that let the surgeon operate remotely and software tying all these elements together. A version called Raven IV has four arms, meant to replicate two surgeons.

The researchers originally were interested in writing software for the da Vinci system, but maker Intuitive kept some of its code secret. The UW, however, received funding from the U.S. Army to build its own system. The researchers have settled on the two-arm version as more affordable to the institutions conducting research. The system has yet to be approved by the FDA.

Despite its $2 million price tag, the da Vinci system was used in 350,000 surgeries in 2012, according to the article. In 2012, the FDA received 1,595 reports of adverse events-- deaths, injuries or malfunctions--related to the system, and 3,697 adverse reports from January through November 2013.

Hospitals have been accused of hyping robotic surgery while downplaying the risks. Johns Hopkins research found it much costlier than minimally invasive laproscopic surgery on the colon, but providing no great advantage to patients. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists issued a statement saying it's not the best choice for routine procedures.

Robotic surgery was listed in FierceHealthIT's list of five overrated, overpriced healthcare technologies. This fall, the ECRI Institute ranked robotic surgery as No. 9 on its Top 10 health technology hazards list, pointing out that there currently are no widely recognized requirements for robotic surgery training and credentialing programs.

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