The Pipeline

A better, cheaper surgical robot on the way?

Becka DeSmidt, Technology Insights

Hospital administrators often express concern regarding the cost of the da Vinci robot and its questionable impact on clinical outcomes. This issue is especially pressing given the imperatives of improving value and reducing cost under accountable care. 

Though the da Vinci is undeniably a powerful technology, it is not perfect. There are several improvements and innovations that competitors could offer down the line that stand to greatly advance the field of robotic surgery.

Competitors are eager to offer an alternative: the University of Washington’s Raven II, Titan Medical’s Amadeus systems, SOFAR’s Telelap ALF-X, and the ARAKNES project are all scrambling to capture a share of the $5 billion annual market for robotic surgery platforms.

  • Curious about the promise of competitors to the da Vinci robot? Check out our analysis for more details on the companies vying for share of the surgical robot market.

Reducing the cost impact

The clearest way that a competitor company could disrupt Intuitive’s hold on the market is by offering a cheaper alternative. With the price of the Amadeus system pegged below $600K, the Raven at $250K, and the Telelap between $1M and $1.3M, these systems would make a much smaller impact on a hospital’s bottom line and could enable a profitable program

The Telelap even features reusable instrumentation, which eliminates some of the ongoing costs that can add up to thousands of dollars per case.

Shrinking the long surgeon learning curve

Competitors could also take aim at the long learning curve associated with the da Vinci robot. The learning curve is problematic for two reasons: first, the additional time it takes to perform the procedure drives up the cost of the surgery. Second, inexperienced surgeons who have fewer cases under their belts are likely to have worse outcomes in the procedures.

Competing surgical robots will be outfitted with several new capabilities that will address this problem. These include: increasing the flexibility and accuracy of the surgical instruments, incorporating better haptic—or touch—feedback for the surgeon, and improving visualization through superimposed ultrasound images of the patient’s anatomy onto surgeons’ real-time view through the endoscope.

The Telelap takes visualization one step further with its eye-tracking technology, which allows surgeons to activate instruments, manipulate endoscopes, and control visualization by simply directing their gaze to various parts of the screen. This feature also has a safety component: the eye-tracking technology would halt an operation automatically whenever the surgeon’s gaze moved away from the surgical field.

Disruptive innovation with potential to significantly impact clinical outcomes

Finally, critics levy legitimate questions about the utility of the da Vinci robot, citing the dearth of clinical literature that demonstrates that the robot improves outcomes over standard laparoscopic methods. The Amadeus, Raven, and Telelap models may come outfitted with advanced features that allow for a more precise and less invasive surgery, all of which could translate to lower complication rates, less blood loss, and shorter recovery times than what we currently see with the da Vinci robot.

Because these models are still years away from commercial availability, this arms race has yet to fully begin. For now, Intuitive will continue to solidify its stronghold on the robotic surgery market, but hopefully the next few years will see alternatives emerge that address the weaknesses of Intuitive’s dominant, yet imperfect da Vinci.

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