Robodoc, a Steady Hand That Lacks the Human Touch, Comes to Surgery

updated 08/20/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/20/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Tales of cold, impersonal surgeons are legion, and the surgeon who operated on 5-year-old Mindy this summer was particularly bloodless. But what this one lacked in bedside manner was made up for in technical expertise. Mindy is a white German shepherd, and the surgeon performing the delicate task of preparing her arthritic right hip for a joint replacement was Robodoc, the world's first robotic device that actively performs surgical procedures. In seven operations since last May, Robodoc has proven so skillful that its human medical bosses predict it will soon be used on people.

Robodoc is the innovation of Dr. Hap Paul, 41, a veterinarian-surgeon at the Sacramento Animal Medical Group in Carmichael, Calif., and Dr. William Bargar, 45, orthopedic surgeon at Sacramento's Sutter General Hospital. Both men are also orthopedics researchers at the University of California School of (human) Medicine in Davis. Paul performs about 75 canine hip replacements each year and oversaw the procedure on Mindy. In that operation the computerized robotic medico, programmed with the exact dimensions of the implant, carved out a cavity in the thigh bone so that it would precisely accommodate the titanium artificial joint. Traditionally doctors do that job with a mallet and a filelike broach, "which sometimes cause the bones to crack," says Paul. Instead, Robodoc wields a small, rotary cutting device, and, Paul says, it can cut bone "40 times more precisely than we can and create a perfect match."

It took Paul and Bargar a year to find a company willing to work with them on a surgical robot. "They all said, 'You're crazy,' " says Paul. But in 1986 researchers at IBM in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., became fascinated with the idea and, after a year of study, they were convinced it would work. IBM donated funds and equipment, including four single-arm robots similar to those used on assembly lines. So far, all of Paul's three-hour, $3,000, robot-assisted operations have been successful. Within a year Bargar plans to introduce Robodoc at Sutter General for use in human hip replacements (about 160,000 are performed in the U.S. annually).

Mindy's owner, optician Guyla Manly, is already a convert. When Mindy became Robodoc's third successful clinical trial, Manly decided to have the license plate on her pickup changed to read ROBODOG.

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