Is Robotic Surgery Safer?

Robotic surgery seems like something from science fiction, but it is a reality in an increasing number of hospitals and medical facilities. However, the initial excitement over robotic surgery has cooled somewhat in the face of problems that have developed as these procedures become more widespread.

The Explosion of Robotic Surgery

Robot-assisted surgery was conceived as an idea that machines could help surgeons perform difficult operations more accurately and effectively. Besides the fact that machines can be programmed through computers to target microscopic areas of the body, the creators of robotic surgical machinery also touted the benefit of reduced risk of infection and even the fact that a surgeon could perform multiple surgeries at once with the help of robots.

According to the federal Food and Drug Administration, more than 367,000 robotic surgeries were performed in 2014. This is a three-fold increase since 2008, and many experts predict that the explosion of robotic surgery has just begun, particularly for relatively minor procedures. However, the darker side to the robotic surgery story is just beginning to emerge as more data becomes available on how often these systems fail, leading to poor patient outcomes and injury.

Pros and Cons of Robotic Surgery

There are certainly advantages to robotic surgery, including shorter healing times in some cases as well as reduction of certain risks. However, doctors are finding that there are also dangers involved in robotic surgery, most of which stem from the lack of hands-on care a patient receives from a physician in the course of a robotic surgical event.

Between 2010 and 2013, more than 10,000 reports on adverse outcomes of robotic surgery were filed with the FDA. These reports included 144 deaths, 1,391 injuries and more than 8,000 cases of machinery malfunction. The actual figures may be much higher since the FDA does not receive reports of every malfunction or injury caused by robotic surgery, especially if the problem is deemed an error on the part of the physician or staff.

Reports of problems have included parts of the machinery falling into the bodies of patients; uncontrolled power outages; uncontrolled movements of the patient that led to injury by the robot; burns resulting from electrical sparks; and other injuries or fatalities caused by robots. In addition, some of the procedures themselves may be dangerous. For example, a power morcellator is a robotic surgical machine used to grind tissue into small pieces for easy removal. If that tissue contains cancer cells, the machine may actually help spread the cancer rather than removing it safely.

Types of Robotic Surgery

In the beginning of the robotic surgical revolution, several companies were on the forefront of this development. Zeus and Aesop were two companies that showed great promise; however, the aggressive business practices of another company called da Vinci, owned by Intuitive Surgical, has put these other companies out of business. Today, da Vinci corners the market in robotic surgery, and the problems associated with its machines are those that are threatening the future of robotic surgery in general.

The da Vinci machines have not been shown to improve patient outcomes in a dramatic way. After the first wave of improvements when robotic surgery was first improved, robotics has not been shown to have significant advantages over traditional surgery, especially when compared to innovations such as laproscopic techniques.

In a study conducted by the ECRI Institute that examined more than 4,000 studies, the evidence has not shown that robotic surgery surpasses laproscopic surgery and other minimally invasive techniques. In fact, robotic surgery has fallen out of favor for both cardiovascular surgery and gynecological surgery, the two areas in which it promised to revolutionize the healthcare industry. While robots are used extensively for prostate surgery, there is no evidence that robotics improves impotence or incontinence rates.

For patients who have been injured by a robotic surgical procedure, a medical malpractice case may be their only hope of recovering compensation. At David & Philpot, P.L., we’ve been helping the victims of medical malpractice for over 20 years. If you have been injured as the result of a robotic surgical procedure gone wrong, contact us today for a free evaluation of your case.