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How Safe Is Robotic Surgery?

As noted in a recent LA Times article, “These days, some surgeons have four arms and are made of metal and plastic.” While robotic surgery certainly has some advantages over its human counterpart, as San Diego medical malpractice attorneys, we are still not ready to dismiss our lingering questions about its safety.

As detailed in the article, use of a robotic assistant called the Da Vinci Surgical System has quadrupled in the last four years, and the machine now helps with incisions and sutures in 2,000 hospitals around the world. Yet the results of robotic surgery have not yet been proven to be any better than traditional approaches.

“There’s never been a study showing clinical superiority,” says Dr. Marty Makary, a surgeon at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. “For the patient, there’s clearly no difference.”

In fact, few studies have compared robots and surgeons side by side using random assignment to robotic or manual laparoscopic surgery. Moreover, the studies that have done so have revealed often-conflicting results. Two found that robotic surgery took longer than the hands-on alternative; in another study, the robot was faster.

One study of 20 patients published in the journal Surgical Endoscopy in 2004 suggested that people who had an adrenal gland removed with the robot were more likely to have complications that required the surgeon to open them up all the way than those who underwent traditional laparoscopic surgery.

The Institute for Clinical and Economic Review, an independent healthcare evaluator at Massachusetts General Hospital, examined Da Vinci surgery as part of a 2009 report on prostate cancer treatment. There was no evidence of major benefit from the robot compared with open surgery, says Dan Ollendorf, the institute’s chief review officer.

Until robotic surgery has proven to be more effective, many experts agree that the experience of the surgeon, not the chosen tools, is what makes the most difference for patients.