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OM in the News: Robots in Surgery Don’t Always Work

September 12, 2013
The da Vinci surgical system

The da Vinci surgical system

Robotic surgery has grown dramatically, increasing more than 400% in the US between 2007 and 2011, reports The New York Times (Sept. 10, 2013). About 1,400 da Vinci systems, made by Intuitive Surgical Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif. and costing $1.5- $2.5 million each, have been purchased by hospitals. On the market for more than a decade, more than a million procedures have been performed with the da Vinci.

But a new study follows a series of reports critical of robotically assisted surgery. Documents against Intuitive have outlined the aggressive tactics used to market the equipment and raised questions about the quality of training provided to surgeons, as well as the pressure on doctors and hospitals to use it–even in cases where it is not the physician’s first choice and he or she has little hands-on experience.

Almost 57% of surgeons surveyed anonymously said they had experienced irrecoverable operative malfunctions while using the da Vinci system. And between 2000 and 2012, thousands of da Vinci mishaps were reported to the F.D.A., including 174 injuries and 71 deaths, according to The Journal for Healthcare Quality (Aug. 27, 2013). Yet by combing news reports and court records, researchers at Johns Hopkins were able to find examples of botched operations that were not reported to the agency. They concluded that adverse events associated with the da Vinci were “vastly underreported.”

Reports made to the F.D.A. represent only “the tip of the iceberg” of surgical complications and adverse drug reactions, says the president of the National Research Center for Women and Families. “The consequence,” she states, “is that little is known of the real disadvantages of the equipment, and the injuries and deaths it may cause, even as robotic surgery is widely marketed to consumers.”

Discussion questions:

1. Is the da Vinci a successful product?

2. Are robots always useful in increasing productivity and accuracy?

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