We’re in the midst of a robotics revolution. Robots are reshaping major industries, from mining to manufacturing to the military. And as the technology becomes more precise and sophisticated, they’re also proliferating within the medical industry—especially in the operating room.
Robot-assisted surgeries more than tripled between 2008 and 2012. At least one in four U.S. hospitals has a Da Vinci, a surgical robot made for soft-tissue surgery—and that’s not even counting the robotic devices approved for neurosurgery and orthopedics, among others. Robotic surgical devices are now routinely used for general surgery, pediatric surgery gynecology, urology and more.
The more these devices evolve, the more widespread they’ll become. Surgeons predict that within the next five years, one in three U.S. surgeries will be performed via robot with surgeons guiding their mechanical arms from a computer console.
With the rise of robotic surgery, surgical instruments are growing more elaborate and sensitive to environmental conditions. As surgeons increasingly rely on robots to perform minimally invasive surgeries, precise climate control for operating rooms is becoming more important than ever.
Safety standards for robo-surgery
Surgeons use all kinds of sensitive electro-medical devices in the operating room, from imaging systems to digital monitors. Rigid safety standards govern the development of these surgical instruments are high, since they can mean the difference between life and death for patients.
To earn FDA approval, medical devices must meet a complicated set of design and safety requirements. They also undergo rigorous testing, during which they must continue to operate accurately; a single error can send engineers back to the drawing board.
With surgical robots, which rely on a “delicate interplay of hardware and software,” the stakes are even higher, says surgeon Daniel Herron.
“Surgical robots are considerably more complex, both electrically and mechanically, than traditional devices used in the operating room environment,” he says “In addition, they involve direct contact with the patient, both externally and internally. These important features differentiate surgical robots from other equipment such as operating microscopes, intraoperative imaging devices and traditional operating room instruments.”
If robotic components fail mid-surgery, or if the robo-surgeon executes a wrong command at the wrong time, patients can be seriously injured. Spontaneous incorrect movements or losses of power during surgery have caused two deaths and 52 injuries in U.S. operating rooms. Electric sparks have caused 193 patient injuries. And 18 patients have been hurt by robotic video system failures.
The serious potential consequences of malfunction make safety a crucial concern in both the design and operation of surgical robots.
“The ‘blue screen of death’ can’t happen in medical devices,” says electrical engineer Jerry Twomey.
Climate control for robotic surgery suites
Even the most carefully constructed robot can fail in the wrong environment. Robots and surgical instruments with sensitive electronic circuits require constant temperature and humidity levels to work properly.
With such delicate devices in operation, climate control for operating rooms is crucial. High humidity can cause condensation to form and moisture to penetrate their circuitry. Low humidity can interfere with machine calibration and result in electrostatic discharges that can damage internal parts. In either case, a hitch in the operating room’s climate control system can cause robotic equipment to malfunction.
Humidity and temperature has been shown to directly affect the outcomes of some surgeries. A 10 percent increase in room humidity during LASIK surgery, for example, can cause an additional 9 percent of patients to require follow-up procedures.
To prevent malfunction at a crucial moment, healthcare facilities need to be able to ensure consistent climate control for surgical suites. Yet many existing HVAC systems aren’t capable of maintaining safe temperature and humidity levels for robotic instruments. With surgeons demand ever-cooler temperatures in their operating rooms, keeping humidity levels down has become a challenge.
That’s why medical facilities are increasingly turning to outside climate control solutions for help. Desiccant dehumidifiers, for example, can help remove moisture from the air and prevent condensation from threatening robotic circuits. Today’s climate engineers can create and maintain the precise environmental conditions needed to safely operate robotic surgical instruments.
Robotic surgery has the potential to improve surgical outcomes and reduce patient recovery times—but only if they function properly. The right climate control solutions can help robots fulfill their promise in the operating room.