Is Robotic Surgery Safe?

You, like I, must have heard all the stories about how robotic surgery has revolutionzed prostate cancer surgery, or prostatectomies, and hysterectomies (allowing patients to go home the same day), and many other surgeries.  I've even written about it.  But studies now point to the scary fact that this kind of surgery may not be so safe, after all.

The New York Times reports a surgery for endometriosis, where the woman was rushed back to the hospital 11 days later with a torn rectum and colon, reinstating her as an inpatient for five weeks, according to  Looks like that didn't help anyone, not hospitals trying to save money on readmissions, not the patient, not the doctor, or the surgical team.  The only one who didn't lose out? The robot.

Many industry experts believe incidents like this are not reported, or are somehow "misfiled," leading to a story published in The Journal for Healthcare Quality, where researchers claim there is evidence that "botched operations are not always reported." In particular, they note, Intuitive Surgical Inc’s da Vinci system, on the market for a decade -- and the equipment used in many surgeries — has been "linked to 174 injuries and 71 deaths."

The team adds that "such events associated with the da Vinci are 'vastly underreported.'"

So much for the Great White Way of Medicine. goes on to say that the authors of the Journal for Healthcare Quality article think that robotic surgical tools have the potential to reduce human error, improve efficiency and perform complex procedures, but "the authors believe that too little is known about injuries and fatalities caused by the equipment."

Despite safety concerns, robotic surgical tool use grew "by over 400 percent between 2007 and 2011. Roughly 1,4000 of the $1.5 - $2.5 million da Vinci systems have been purchased by hospitals in the United States."

Executives from Intuitive, the makers of da Vinci, say they have done everything necessary to comply with regulations, according to

Complaints about the system are that they are very expensive -- and that the outcomes of surgeries done with these robots are no better than "open" surgery.  In April Kaiser Health News noted that studies were emerging that questioned whether these surgeries were cost-effectiven and that they didn't necessarily improve patient outcomes, though it's been proven that recoveries are quicker and there's less blood loss and complications.

So if you're facing a gallbladder or gastric bypass or prostate surgery, you might want to do your homework and see if you're not really better off just going the old-fashioned way.


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