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St. Mark's Hospital adds a second da Vinci robot to its surgical services

SALT LAKE CITY — Meet Dr. da Vinci Xi. He’s not your typical doctor at St. Mark’s Hospital. In fact, this doctor isn’t even human.

Robotic surgical equipment is used in hospitals across the country. Here in Utah, St. Mark's is using two of such devices.

In 2009, St. Mark's starting doing robotic surgeries with its first machine, the da Vinci Si. Three months ago, it bought a second unit, the da Vinci Xi. With the help of the robots, doctors at St. Mark's Hospital have done about 1,500 robotic procedures since 2009.

Doctors work at a console nearby and are able to move the robotic arms, with cameras and surgical tools attached, through small incisions in a patient. Using hand controls and foot pedals, the computer essentially mimics the surgeon's hand movements.

“You don’t really have any tactile sensation with this, but once you start doing surgery, your brain starts to know how much pressure you’re actually putting,” Dr. Jessica Hunn, a gynecologic oncologist and robotic committee chairwoman at St. Mark's Hospital.

Doctors get 3-D images and can do a variety of procedures without ever touching the patient. And the technology dramatically improves their precision.

“So the finite movements, especially when it comes to precisely placed stitches, sparring nerves, moving away muscle that can be somewhat harmed in the course of the surgery, I feel like greater precision offers greater outcomes,” said St. Mark’s physician Peter Fisher.

“I actually can do my robot surgeries in faster times than some of my open surgeries because it's more efficient,” Hunn said.

For the patient, robotic surgery is real a game changer.

“There’s less trauma to the body surface, for starters,” Fisher said. “There’s certainly less bleeding in a robotic procedure than in an open surgical procedure. That was clear from the get-go of the surgery.”

The advantage that patients appreciate the most is the recovery time.

“They can literally go home from the surgery the next day,” Hunn said. “Ten years ago, they would have to be in the hospital sometimes for two weeks to recover, so this has made a huge difference.”

Because of the minimally invasive approach, doctors say it could also help patients years after the surgery.

“What we hope is that you get better quality of life down the road, so that you have less long-term problems of surgical scarring and other sort of long-term problems that can happen in surgery,” Fisher said.

It's doubtful that such robotic machines will be used to remotely operate on patients. Doctors and patients still want that face-to-face bedside interaction.

But in the years ahead, the technology will continue to improve and the size of the robotic units, as with all computers, will certainly get smaller.

The price tag, on the other hand, probably won't. The machines cost about a $1.5 million.

Contributing: Viviane Vo-Duc