Every medical device company—in and out of the surgical business—and many other tech companies are deep in the war of surgical robotics and digital solutions.


These solutions go beyond automated “cutting.” They offer much more when it comes to preparing the patient for surgery, helping measure the patient to ensure accuracy and so much more. The applications are amazing in the ability to improve accuracy rates, recovery time and outcomes. 


There are many robots being built right now. Some are geared for general surgery, like the Da Vinci robot, which weighs in at more than 200 pounds. Others come in all sizes, and they’re more specialized for procedures on knees, hips, shoulders or the spine. And some are being created specifically to handle organs. 


Each robot is specialized to a type of surgery and has to be purchased individually by the hospital for a defined use in the operating room. Ultimately, this will lead to a room full of robots assisting surgeries more accurately and with better results.

But is it realistic to expect hospitals to manage a room full of robots?


There’s a challenging juxtaposition with robotics and the direction that hospitals have been taking for the last five years. While hospitals have been driving new innovations, they’ve also been on serious campaigns to rein in costs. In a 2018 survey of 146 healthcare executives by healthcare research firm Advisory Board, respondents cited “preparing the enterprise for sustainable cost control” and “innovative approaches to expense reduction” as their top two areas of concern.


As these concerns rise, many are reducing the number of products on the shelves, shrinking surgical suites, and analyzing the cost per square feet of space they use. With the continued assessment and likely reduction of space, how do you manage a room full of robots?


In the short term, the individualized selling will continue, but eventually a winner will emerge in the “war of the robots.” When it comes to the “ultimate” robot’s characteristics, it must be:


1. Multifunctional: The most innovative robot will need to be the “Swiss Army Knife” of robots: It must be able to perform many different types of surgeries, such as all orthopedic surgeries for hips, knees and shoulders. It would need to have all the different algorithms and the right tools (saws, scopes, etc.) for the specifics of each surgery.


2. Valuable: The value proposition should justify the price. Despite being portable, hospitals will likely need multiple surgical robots to cover numerous surgical suites throughout the building (operating room, emergency room, etc.). Unlike a single-use medical device, robotics as capital equipment require more than just the purchase cost, potentially including a service contract, consumables, replacement parts, etc. Due to this expense, the value must justify the price, especially if multiple robots are needed.


3. Easy to configure: If the robot will be used for multiple purposes, it should easily and quickly be adjusted for different types of surgeries.


4. Portable: The robot should be movable so that the hospital can address the scale of surgeries. If the robot can handle multiple functions, it will likely be needed in different areas of the hospital (ER, OR, ortho lab, etc.). If a certain surgical suite isn’t fully prepped, healthcare providers can roll the robot next door to an already prepped room.


5. Digitally integrated: Data from robotic surgeries is immensely valuable in the ability to help create consistent execution of surgical procedures, to understand how to handle co-morbidities and more. Matching pre-surgical planning data with clear characterization of the intervention (physical measurements, product measurements) and then capturing outcomes data (complications, timing) results in useful information across the surgery that can be analyzed and improved through AI algorithms. Some existing robots need to be connected to a flash drive to download data. This data is extremely valuable but needs the ability to interact with the hospital’s systems, help the patient prepare for the surgery and monitor the success afterward to drive its true potential.


Who is going to win the “robot rumble”? Will the winner be a pure-play robotics company (such as Intuitive or Verb Surgical)? A current medtech supplier looking to drive a robotic solution (J&J, Medtronic, Stryker)? Or even a large entrant with deep pockets but no skin in the current game (Apple, Tesla, IBM)? Only time will tell, but there’s no question that the current individualized approach—too specialized, too big, too expensive—will quickly become unsustainable for hospitals. Those looking to drive robotics-based innovation should start singing a different tune.