Blog // Digitalization

Robots in the operating theatre

Patients complained of pain, hematomas and difficulties in walking. Hundreds sued for compensation for the suffering they endured. In the meantime opinions have changed and there is a real hype. Clinics without robots have little chance of being taken seriously as professional operating centres.

The story of the introduction of robots in the operating theatre could become an exemplary case for the process of overcoming difficulties with digital products. We describe these radical changes in our book LATERALES MANAGEMENT1.

What was attempted for the first time in 1994 in a painful process has now become routine and also creates a competitive advantage. A total of 80 clinics in German-speaking areas call the operation robot DA VINCI their own. And now it’s not just about orthopaedic surgery.

Already in 2000 a robot was developed for urinary and reproductive organs. This machinery had only just been licensed in the USA when another doctor in Frankfurt, the urologist Jochen Binder, removed a prostate by computer for the first time. Now approximately 80% of all radical prostatectomies are carried out by remote-controlled operations. In Germany the figure is 30% and approximately 6,300 operations per year with a rising trend.2

But then there is the economic aspect. Whereas industrial robots cost approximately € 10,000 – € 100,000, the US manufacturer INTUITIVE SURGICAL charges € 1,800,000  for  the digital machine. In comparison to a conventional operation the use of a robot is on average € 1,300 more expensive. And health insurance schemes won't pay a penny towards it. Protected by a large number of patents, the manufacturer still has a monopoly and can dictate prices.2

Three things can be learned from this story for the process of introducing digital products:

1. First of all, setbacks have to be expected when a new technology is introduced. Those who start to use new technologies run the risk of disappointment in the beginning. Various studies are currently being conducted to compare this robot technology with classic keyhole surgery procedures. The latter has so far had minor advantages in non-routine operations. The next challenge is appendix operations by autonomous robots which have so far only worked with pigs.

2. At the initial stage of any digital innovation the prices for the new technologies are very high. This initially means an investment for the organisation. But whoever gets in early has a technological advantage.

3. Acceptance of new technologies is initially poor and setbacks lead to scandals in the public arena. After a while, however, the depression suddenly turns into hype, the innovation becomes standard and customers demand it. The reason for this turnaround is the fact that both surgeons and customers have to learn to use new technologies better.

Anyone who takes a look at the advance of robots into the operating theatres for over 20 years now will be surprised that driverless cars are not yet standard since the technology involved is relatively less complex. People would probably rather sit in a driverless car than have their prostate or ovaries removed by a mindless robot.


1 Geschwill, Roland & Nieswandt, Martina, Laterales Management, Das Erfolgsprinzip für Unternehmen im digitalen Zeitalter, Springer 2016

2 FAZ, Es sägt und näht der Roboter. May 2016, P.57