University of Florida urologists have used robot-assisted surgery to cut about 20 minutes off average surgery time for conventional vasectomy reversal using a microscope.
Sperm count after surgery is comparable over a year for the two procedures, but the robotic procedure appears to result in a quicker return of sperm count.
"For a couple that's trying to get pregnant, this is a big deal," said Sijo Parekattil, M.D., director of male infertility and microsurgery at UF, who led the study.
The findings, now online and to appear in an upcoming print edition of the Journal of Endourology, represent the first head-to-head comparison of robot-assisted vasectomy reversal and the microscope procedure that is widely used.
Many types of surgery are now being aided by robots, and surgeons continue to explore new areas in which they can be used.
"This is state-of-the-art stuff, it's cutting-edge, and a stepping stone to understanding whether or not we can use this technology on a more widespread basis," said Wayne Kuang, M.D., director of Male Reproductive Health at University of New Mexico, who was not involved in the study. "It's a natural progression from back in the days when we just had magnified eyeglasses."
But robotic vasectomy reversal is not without controversy among specialists who say that using an expensive robot to do something that is already done well simply with a microscope is a waste of resources.
Most patients pay out of pocket for vasectomy reversal. The robot-assisted procedure can cost more than $3,000 more than the microscope method.
"The big question is did it improve outcomes - either pregnancy rates or the time spent in surgery?" said professor Jay Sandlow, M.D., vice chair of the department of urology at Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, who initially had reservations about the robotic procedure but after seeing the preliminary results now says he sees value in the method.
"It certainly looks as if he has done that," said Sandlow, who was not involved in the study. "He has shown a meaningful decrease in the amount of time it takes to do these robotically compared to the open procedure."
Since many hospital fees are based on time, cutting operating time might offset some of the extra charges associated with the use of the robot.
Parekattil, who has the rare combination of being fellowship trained in both infertility microsurgery and robotics, suspects that the time reduction happens because the robot allows for more efficient use of instruments with the use of multiple arms and tools simultaneously.