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Robot-assisted surgery: a safer alternative?

The Becker Law Firm, LPA

Medical technology is constantly evolving. The latest technological trend in surgery is robot-assisted surgery. The surgical robot is touted as a surgical breakthrough-promising fewer complications and quicker patient recovery time. However, the robot itself is expensive-about $1.5 million. As a result, robotic surgery is heavily marketed by manufacturers on billboards, television and radio. In addition, many doctors recommend a robotic procedure over a traditional one to their patients.

Although many technological breakthroughs can deliver on their beneficial promises, data suggests that robotic surgery may not live up to its claims.

About robot-assisted surgery

Robot-assisted surgery is similar to a laparoscopic procedure, except a robot is used to perform the procedure. After making a keyhole-sized incision, the surgeon uses hand or foot controls to perform the procedure using surgical instruments on robotic arms. The surgeon is guided by a 3-D camera that shows the progress of the procedure in real time.

The use of robots is becoming increasingly prevalent in many types of surgical procedures such as hysterectomies, prostate or gallbladder removal, transplants, heart valve repairs and other soft tissue operations. According to a survey by JPMorgan, about half of general surgeons plan to acquire robotic systems before 2015.

Driven by marketing

The use of robots in surgery has been largely driven by the aggressive marketing techniques of the manufacturers of the robot. The robot is marketed to hospitals and patients as a safer alternative to traditional surgery. Once a robot is purchased, hospitals often encourage surgeons to steer patients towards having robot-assisted surgery over traditional surgery in order to recoup the significant investment and increase revenue.

Despite the glittering claims found in the surgical robots’ brochures, the benefits-or lack thereof-of robot-assisted surgery have not yet been established in randomized trials. Yet, this fact has not stopped physicians and hospitals from attempting to sway patients towards robotic surgery. According to a 2011 study by Johns Hopkins School of Medicine found that approximately 164 hospital surgery websites about robotic surgery overstate the benefits of such surgery, fail to state the risk of such surgery or essentially restate manufacturer marketing materials.

FDA Scrutiny

According to data, this type of misleading marketing has been rather successful. Robot-assisted surgery has been steadily growing since 2010. Last year, robots were used in about 350,000 procedures. However, as the use of robots in the operating room has increased, it has also come under scrutiny by the FDA. The agency found that some manufactures violated regulations by failing to accurately report patient adverse events (e.g. complications) during surgeries involving their robot. As a result, the FDA issued a warning letter to a manufacturer earlier this year.

To get a more accurate number of adverse events associated with robot-assisted surgery, the FDA sent out a survey earlier this year to learn about surgeons’ experiences while using the robot, after the number of surgical errors, complications and other adverse events related to the use of robots had doubled during the first eight months of this year alone. Depending on what is discovered in the survey, the FDA said that it has not ruled out further action.

Consult an attorney

Whether or not a robot is used during surgery, Ohio law requires surgeons to perform procedures with a minimum level of competence and care. If this minimum level is not reached, the surgeon can be held liable for medical malpractice. If you or a loved one has been injured during a surgical operation, consult with an experienced medical malpractice attorney to ensure that the responsible party is held accountable.

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