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Study Finds Little Benefit to Procedures using da Vinci Surgical Systems Robot Device

Feb 21, 2013

New research shows that robotic surgery using the da Vinci Surgical Systems device provides little benefit to most patients and costs considerably more than traditional surgery methods.

According to a Wall Street Journal report on a new study from researchers at Columbia University, use of the da Vinci Surgical Systems robotic device has increased dramatically in the last few years and more procedures than ever are being performed using this device instead of traditional methods, including minimally-invasive laparoscopic surgeries.

Researchers found that since 2000, at least 1,370 hospitals in the U.S. have purchased a da Vinci Surgical Systems robot and the need to get their money back for the cost of the device has pushed many surgeons and patients into relying on it instead of a traditional surgery. The makers of the da Vinci Surgical Systems device, Intuitive Surgical Inc., have even received sharp criticism from health officials over the marketing of this unit, often pressuring hospitals through the threat of competition to purchase and then heavily use the da Vinci system when they otherwise would not have.

Part of this marketing includes glossing over the side effects and complications a person could encounter during and after a surgery using the da Vinci robot. Patients are led to believe that surgery using the da Vinci robot is minimally-invasive and this is supposed to translate into a safer surgery. The da Vinci robot is now used in a variety of surgeries including prostate, gallbladder, cardiovascular, and gynecological procedures.

Though the incision to perform the surgery is smaller, the risk of complications is not necessarily smaller than a traditional means of surgery and the bill for it certainly is not smaller.

Researchers and previous reports show that complications caused by errors using the da Vinci device are not rare, certainly no less rare than traditional surgical methods. The study from Columbia examined the impact of the device on hysterectomy procedures. Between 2007 and 2010, use of the da Vinci robot for this procedure increased from less than one-half percent to 10 percent. This figure is still less than the rate of open laparoscopic surgeries performed for hysterectomies but the study found that complication rates are about the same in each.

Between the two groups compared, about 5 percent experience complications. Things go wrong with the use of the da Vinci robot for a variety of reasons, according to this and previous reports. People who’ve undergone a surgery using the da Vinci robot have experienced complications such as internal burns and tears, punctured blood vessels, bowel injuries, excessive bleeding, vaginal cuff dehiscence, and death.

Columbia researchers also noted one small benefit to using the robot instead of a laparoscopic surgery, shorter hospital stays, but based on the study that benefit was only minimal and may only help to reduce the cost of the more expensive surgery option. Women who had a hysterectomy using the da Vinci robot stayed in the hospital for longer than two days at a rate of 20 percent, compared to 25 percent of women who had a traditional open surgery.

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