Robot Surgery Problems

From AP:

Anyone with a story here?

CHICAGO (AP) – The biggest thing in operating rooms these days is a million-dollar, multi-armed robot named da Vinci, used in nearly 400,000 surgeries nationwide last year – triple the number just four years earlier.

But now the high-tech helper is under scrutiny over reports of problems, including several deaths that may be linked with it and the high cost of using the robotic system.

There also have been a few disturbing, freak incidents: a robotic hand that wouldn’t let go of tissue grasped during surgery and a robotic arm hitting a patient in the face as she lay on the operating table.

Is it time to curb the robot enthusiasm?

Some doctors say yes, concerned that the “wow” factor and heavy marketing have boosted use. They argue that there is not enough robust research showing that robotic surgery is at least as good or better than conventional surgeries.

Many U.S. hospitals promote robotic surgery in patient brochures, online and even on highway billboards. Their aim is partly to attract business that helps pay for the costly robot.

The da Vinci is used for operations that include removing prostates, gallbladders and wombs, repairing heart valves, shrinking stomachs and transplanting organs. Its use has increased worldwide, but the system is most popular in the United States.

“We are at the tip of the iceberg. What we thought was impossible 10 years ago is now commonplace,” said Dr. Michael Stifelman, robotic surgery chief at New York University’s Langone Medical Center.

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  • Joe Canner

    You know a medical technology has “arrived” when lawyers start advertising for patients that have been hurt by it. 🙂

    I was involved in helping daVinci get approved by the FDA. As with most experimental medical devices, there was not enough testing prior to approval to uncover ever last problem with the device. The high cost of the device restricted even further the amount of testing that could be done. The FDA reviewed the device carefully before approval and convened a panel of experts, who also reviewed it and recommended its approval.

    The problem with anecdotal reports of problems is that there is no context. Without large scale studies, we don’t know how many people would have died if the traditional surgery would have been done. It’s up to the FDA to decide whether the number of reports rises to a level that justifies action. And with federal budgets being cut, it’s not likely that a definitive study is on the horizon.

    As to whether the cost of the device is justified, that’s a different question that insurance companies and consumers will have to decide.

  • LMoon

    Well, my husband got a vasectomy reversal with the help of one, and we had no trouble getting pregnant. The doctor was one of the most experienced with reversals in the state, and prefers using the robot, but I don’t recall if he has numbers comparing success rates with and without it.

  • John L

    My understanding is that surgical robotics has reduced the mishaps and mistakes typically made by less precise human hands. Cathy Mohr is the lead designer of the DaVinci robots – we gave our main stage TED Talks back-to-back in 2009 🙂

  • Josh

    My dad had prostate cancer surgery with robot, and it apparently helps tremendously in recovery time (and in helping to preserve function). The surgery itself is not as invasive as is traditionally necessary for that type of work (much smaller incisions involved). The article snippet almost makes it sound as if the robots are just replacing humans in doing the same job, but clearly the robots are doing things that humans cannot possibly do. Robots don’t work independently, though, and experience with the technology is very important (makes me wonder about the level of surgeon experience where problems have occurred). There’s a reason my dad’s urologist sent him a few hours away to Johns Hopkins to have the work done by someone with extensive robotic surgery experience.