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Doctors perform better during robotic surgeries when sensors are fitted to tools

New sensor technology may assist doctors as they're tying sutures and stitches during medical procedures

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Haptic touch — the technology that lets you feel blasts through your controller during a video game or virtual reality experience — is working its way into the operating room as well.

A study from UCLA shows how sensors placed at the end of surgical tools may give surgeons more feeling when using robotic tools. During certain kinds of surgeries, doctors may turn to robotic tools to assist them with tasks such as tying sutures. These tools, however while extending a physicians reach into the body, prevent sensations: doctors can't feel what a robotic tool is touching.

In their study, publishing in March in Biomedical Microdevices, researchers noted that during robotic surgery which occurred potentially one million times around the world in 2018, "…forces surgeons to rely on visual cues," they said. Sensors, however, could potentially change that, bringing some feelings directly into a doctor's hands while using these tools.

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Researchers tested the system with 17 people, having them tighten ten knots into sutures — the knotted stitches that are used on the human body to sew up tissue such as skin, or arterial vessels. Too much pressure while tying, and sutures can break, which Jake Pensa, a bioengineering graduate student at UCLA, noted can harm a patient, he told the Daily Bruin.

Robotic tools, however, make it difficult to sense how much a suture is pulling when tightened — and if its in danger potentially of breaking..

During their test, researchers found that sutures failed just seven times while using the haptic system, but 17 times when they had the system turned off, and could not sense any haptic feedback. The overall result was a 59 percent reduction in what researchers called "suture failure."

More crucially, they noted, was that by using the sensors, the applied force on average went down by 25 percent when they had the ability to feel what they were doing, "…which is relevant because average force was observed to play a role in suture breakage," they wrote.

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