The Da Vinci Mode

Robotic surgery can radically change prostate cancer outcomes.

Photo by Cameron Wittig

“Sophisticated puppetry.” That’s the way urologist Dr. Peter Sershon describes the da Vinci Surgical System.

As medical director of the Robotic Surgery Program at United Hospital in St. Paul, he holds seven years and three generations of technological advancements in his robot puppet arms. Those arms (equipped with surgical instruments) stem from a central unit equipped with a high-definition camera that transports real-time HD imagery to the doctor sitting just a few feet away in the da Vinci’s surgical console. “A surgeon moves the arms,” he notes, “and that motion is reproduced inside the body with these tiny instruments.”

For the thousands of Minnesotans who choose da Vinci surgery to treat their prostate cancer, it’s a much better choice than conventional surgery.

First, it is minimally invasive. Micro-incisions in the abdomen allow enough access for the da Vinci’s arms. Because there are no large incisions, “patients who have had surgery with the da Vinci System usually only need to be hospitalized overnight,” Sershon says. These tiny incisions greatly reduce the risk of infection, and they greatly reduce the rate of blood transfusions—from 15 percent with traditional surgery to less than 1 percent with robotic surgery. Sershon says some patients don’t even use pain medication after surgery.

Also, the da Vinci was designed to eliminate the normal tremor in the doctor’s hands and fingers, and it has built-in safeties so doctors don’t make an unintentional incision. It’s better than human when it comes to human error. “It’s better than your own eyesight,” Sershon says.

He estimates that his 10-person team has performed roughly 4,000 prostate cancer surgeries using the da Vinci System, as well as an additional 1,000 other surgeries such as kidney surgery. In fact, Sershon says 90 percent of urologic surgeries are performed using the da Vinci nowadays. Robotic surgery programs are being formed in Bemidji and Waconia, and the St. Cloud Hospital, Mayo Clinic, Duluth, and Brainerd currently have da Vinci Systems in use.

It is not recommended for all surgeries, but when it’s appropriate, it’s a great option. “If people are looking at their options,” Sershon says, “they should ask their doctor if robotic surgery makes sense for them.”

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