Flexible robot could make surgery, recovery easier

One doctor is calling it "the next revolution in surgical advancements" -- a new type of flexible robot that can perform delicate operations in a more precise way.

Surgeons at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center are the first to use the flexible robotic system to perform head and neck surgery. They say it can make certain types of operations less invasive, resulting in quicker, easier recoveries.

"Tumors of the back of the tongue, of the tonsil, even of the larynx or voice box region, can be addressed with this flexible system," Dr. Umamaheswar Duvvuri told CBS News.

Duvvuri recently used the system to operate on Krista Kauffman, who had a growth on the back of her tongue. Without this new tool, the operation would have involved a large incision in her neck, requiring reconstruction and a longer recovery. Instead, the surgical area was much more limited.

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Krista Kauffman had surgery using UPMC's flexible robot.
CBS News

"There's going to be a crater in the back of my throat for a little while. It's going to fill in, and everything's going to be pretty normal," Kauffman said.

Medical reporter Dr. Maria Simbra explains what's unique about this surgical robot is its flexibility. More rigid robotic systems have been used to operate on other parts of the body such as joints or the abdomen and chest, but they aren't as well suited to head and neck surgery. "In the head and neck, the structures are smaller, curvier, and flexibility is a distinct advantage," she said.

The flexible robot was developed by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and Carnegie Mellon. It has been approved for use in Europe as well as the U.S.

However, previous research on other robotic surgeries suggests the high-tech approach isn't always better -- and can be much more expensive.

A 2014 study on robotic surgery for bladder cancer found patients had the same length of hospital stay and the same rate of complications whether they had the less-invasive robotic procedure or traditional open surgery. A 2013 study found similar results for women undergoing hysterectomies with either robotic or traditional techniques. In both of those cases, experts noted that because of the costly equipment, medical bills were higher for the robotic surgeries.