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Robots Aren’t Just for the Movies Anymore: A Look at Robotic Coronary Artery Bypass Grafting

From the charming robots that clean the Earth of waste to the quick-witted ones that travel to outer space, robots have filled the screens of movie theaters for many years. They're lovable, funny, and, in many ways, incredibly intelligent.

Robots off the big screen may not be as cute, but they can certainly be just as smart — especially in the medical world. During the past decade, robotic assistance during surgery has skyrocketed, largely due to quickly evolving technology and the benefits it provides.

Surgeons have extensive training and knowledge, and the human touch is critical to medical care. However, a robotic machine offers different kinds of advantages, especially when it comes to the complex heart surgery called coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG).

CABG is a procedure to improve blood flow to the heart when the coronary arteries are narrowed or blocked. This life-saving surgery involves using blood vessels from other parts of the body to bypass the narrowed or blocked arteries. As a result, the heart can get the blood it needs to survive.

 Robotic Coronary Artery Bypass Grafting Statistics Graphic

Robotic CABG has numerous benefits that can lead to better outcomes. Here is a closer look at coronary artery bypass grafting and the benefits of robotic CABG.

What Exactly Is Coronary Artery Bypass Grafting?

Often referred to as a "lub-dub" sound, your heart's rhythm is not only impressively consistent — it's also critical to keeping you alive. With each beat, it's either pushing oxygen-rich blood out to your brain and the rest of your body or sending it back to the lungs to pick up more oxygen.

Photo of Dr. Deon Vigilance"The arteries that the blood travels through to get to and from the heart are called coronary arteries. As a result of factors such as a family history of heart disease, unhealthy eating, lack of exercise, and smoking, they can become narrowed or blocked by plaque (a build-up of cholesterol and other substances). This is called coronary artery disease (CAD) or ischemic heart disease, which can lead to heart failure — a serious condition in which the heart can't pump blood effectively — or heart attack," says Deon Vigilance, MD, MBA, clinical assistant professor of surgery at Penn Medicine and cardiac surgeon, robotic CABG and TAVR operator on the medical staff at Chester County Hospital.

"This is where coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG) comes in. Either in order to prevent complications from coronary artery disease or as a result of a heart attack, CABG can be used to create another passageway to allow blood to freely flow to the heart muscle…avoiding future heart attacks," he adds.

During CABG, blood vessels are taken from other parts of the body — usually the arms, chest, or legs — and are connected above and below the narrowed or blocked artery.

During traditional CABG, surgeons make a large incision down the middle of the chest along the breastbone (or sternum). Then, the bone is divided and the rib cage is spread apart in order to provide the surgeon access to the heart.

This approach, which is often referred to as open-heart surgery, may be effective in allowing the surgeon to reach the heart. However, it has some drawbacks — it requires a longer incision, comes with more post-operative limitations, and can lead to a longer recovery. 

How a Robot Can Benefit Coronary Artery Bypass Grafting

"A less invasive alternative to open-heart CABG is Robotic CABG. Rather than completely opening up the chest, Robotic CABG only requires small incisions, making recovery quicker and easier. Though the robot is integral during Robotic CABG, the surgeon is still in the driver's seat," says Dr. Vigilance.

Unlike popular robots in the movies that are often completely independent beings, surgical robots are not. A skilled surgeon controls the robot's every move, and robots cannot do anything without the surgeon's guidance.

During Robotic CABG:

  • Small incisions are made into the left side of the chest.
  • Thin surgical instruments and a small camera are placed into the robotic arms and are placed through small incisions, giving the surgeon a clear, 3-D view inside of the body.
  • The surgeon controls these instruments to assist with completing the coronary artery bypass graft procedure.
  • The instruments are removed, and the incisions are closed.

The benefits of Robotic CABG are many, including:

  • Smaller incisions, which lead to less scarring and decreased pain
  • Increased precision and range of motion from the robotic arms
  • Reduced risk of complications, such as infection or bleeding
  • Quicker recovery and return to daily activities

Is Robotic CABG Right for Me?

The use of a robot during CABG has gained much popularity since its introduction. However, there are still limitations. For instance, not every patient is suitable for Robotic CABG, depending on factors such as the severity of coronary artery disease or previous heart surgeries.

In addition, just as with any surgery, there are risks, such as bleeding, wound infection, and abnormal heart rhythm.

Still, Robotic CABG offers benefits that traditional open-heart surgery cannot. Along with the important transition to a heart-healthy diet and lifestyle, Robotic CABG can help patients avoid complications, recover more quickly, and get back to their lives sooner.

Do you have questions about Robotic Coronary Artery Bypass Grafting (CABG)? Call 610-738-2300 to learn more about Robotic CABG and other life-saving procedures performed at the Penn Heart and Vascular Center at Chester County Hospital.


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Chester County Hospital's Health e-Living Blog offers a regular serving of useful health and lifestyle information for the residents of Chester County, PA and the surrounding region.

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