Friday, June 25, 2010

Robotic Catheters - Coming to a Hospital Near You?

I find medical robotics interesting, because unlike industrial robots, they often don't increase productivity in a significant way, but they can increase quality of care. A good example is Intuitive Surgical's (NASDAQ:ISRG) da Vinci system (I like putting NASDAQ tickers in parentheses, makes me feel like I'm writing for The Red Herring in 1999). Da Vinci uses robotic arms to improve on laparoscopic procedures that otherwise require the surgeon to look up at a TV monitor. While some argue this system improves quality of care, the interesting thing economically is that increases the time needed to complete the operation. So in that regard, it actually makes the doctor less productive. If robots in auto plants reduced human productivity, they'd be melted on site, and car company executives would probably say the the same things about them that they did about Matt Millen when he was the Lions GM.

Now, Hansen Medical (NASDAQ:HNSN), a Silicon Valley company like Intuitive Surgical, is developing robots that can reduce the trauma of catheterization for heart patients. While they give a lot of clever, scientific explanations, basically what happens is that the robot sticks the tubes in your chest, not a person. But in terms of surgical operations, the emphasis is on improved quality of care, not higher doctor or nurse productivity. But we'll have to wait and see how this well this really works, these particular surgical robots have not been approved by the FDA.

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