Fancy having a robot perform surgery on you? Well, some 1.6m procedures were carried out last year. It’s not quite as dramatic as it sounds. The future of surgery could well be one that is robot-assisted and minimally invasive. The technology has been available since the 1990s, around 30,000 academic papers have been published advocating the benefits and over 55,000 doctors across the world have received training on how to perform such surgery.
Your author is no Doctor, but when on his recent business trip to the US, he had a chance to trial one such robotic system at the headquarters of Intuitive, the leading player within the sector, and the source for the above statistics. Fortunately no real world patient was present. In your author’s opinion, manipulating the machine was remarkably intuitive (the company’s choice of name is perhaps not accidental). The surgeon sits in a booth not dissimilar to an arcade game machine and looks at a screen while manipulating the surgical arms of the robot. Even to a layperson, the benefits of such an approach were evident. Hand-eye coordination felt quite seamless, while sitting in a chair performing (virtual) surgery seems instinctively more appealing than potentially having to stand over a patient for several hours.
At present, the most popular types of surgery performed by such robots relate to urology, gynaecology, colorectal, bariatric, hernia and gall bladder removal, but the potential to extend the range of use-cases is significant. We were told that Intuitive can see “direct line of sight” to 6m annual robotic procedures over the medium-term, which would imply a quadrupling of the market. The presence of new players (such as Medtronic) into the market should only be a good thing, in our view, since it should help to further legitimise the case for robot-assisted surgery. There is already a strong body of evidence to support both faster patient recovery times (relative to conventional approaches) and superior returns for hospitals deploying such machines. As we first wrote almost a decade ago, the robots are coming.
7 June 2022
The above does not constitute investment advice and is the sole opinion of the author at the time of publication. Heptagon Capital is an investor in Intuitive Surgical. The author of this piece has no personal direct investment in the business. Past performance is no guide to future performance and the value of investments and income from them can fall as well as rise.
Photos taken by the author
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