The robocalypse is here. While Steven Spielberg’s production based on the best-selling novel by Daniel H. Wilson will only be released in 2013, India has finally opened its doors to a revolution, at least in the field of health. The Asian Heart Institute launched the Asian Vattikuti Institute of Robotic Surgery at its Bandra-Kurla complex centre, Mumbai, in June, introducing Asia’s most advanced robotic health system—the da Vinci Si surgical robot. This robot operates effectively as the hands of the surgeon, offering him a magnified 3D view of his subject, with features such as the ability to weed out hand tremors, effectively making any surgeon ambidextrous.

This technological advance has long been overdue in India. Countries like Japan have popularized advanced systems for surgery and even the care of the elderly and disabled, such as Secom’s “My Spoon", which feeds elderly people. Manufacturer Health Robotics’ medication-dispensing robots, aimed at minimizing medical error, are now available on rent for pharmacies in the US. While there are already 1,171 da Vinci Si systems worldwide, according to a paper by M.B. Hiremath of the Indian Academy of Sciences, Bangalore, the acquisition of robots in India was sparked off at government initiative, with two recent installations at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi.

Robo-doc: Asia’s most advanced surgical robot, the da Vinci Si.

Vijay D’Silva, medical director of the Asian Heart Institute, agrees: “Robot-assisted surgery is the future of surgical treatment. Laparoscopic/minimally invasive surgery (MIS) is an advancement over the open surgeries. It has the advantage of faster recovery and surgery through small incisions of 1-2cm as compared with 8-10 inches in the open surgery.

“Robot-assisted surgery will replace open surgeries in the next decade or so. Considering the advantages, more and more surgeons are now switching to robot-assisted surgery as compared with open surgeries."

While the advantages over laparoscopic surgery are the magnified views and the freedom of hand movement, as well as quick patient recovery time, where do instinct, personal involvement and “the healing touch" come in? Johns Hopkins University conducted an experiment at its Maryland, US, hospital, recruiting 60 patients in recovery to receive visits by a newly invented robo-doc through which their own surgeons would communicate with them via in-built screens. An overwhelming 80% felt a robo-doc was infinitely preferable to a visit by another available doctor.

But what new skills will already highly skilled Indian doctors have to acquire to deal with these advances, especially since the World Health Organization states that India will be producing more than 36% of the world’s medical manpower by 2015? R. Panda, cardiac specialist at the Asian Heart Institute, points out that learning comes quick and it’s a matter of trusting your doctor. “When I was in medical college in the 1960s, my professor had to go to Chicago for an angioplasty. Today it’s available at every street corner. There is always a resistance period to change," he says.

Vattikuti laughs: “The robot does not have a mind of its own. It only assists the surgeon. It’s just a tool. The skill is still that of the man who uses it."