Robotic Prostate Surgery: Surgeon’s Volume Is Critical to Outcome

Prostate surgery with a robot called “da Vinci” is often sold to patients as the latest and greatest technology and a way to get a better outcome. But on the key long-term complications — urinary incontinence and erectile dysfunction — the “minimally invasive” robotic surgery may be no better than traditional surgery, and may be worse if the operator is inexperienced.

A new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association criticizes the benefits of the “minimally invasive” surgery as oversold. The operation does cut the average time in the hospital from three days to two, but brings with it both more short-term complications plus more long-term injuries like impotence.

The lead author is Dr. Jim Hu of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “There has been rapid adoption of minimally invasive radical prostatectomy, however, outcomes have not been superior,” Hu said.

Surgeons are trained to use the robot in a weekend course with the manufacturer. Dr. Hu said that a big part of the problem could be surgeons not getting enough experience with the device. He said he has now done more than 700 robotic prostate surgeries, but “it took several hundred cases before I thought I was doing really well in preserving erectile function and continence.”

Articles about the new study can be found here and here

The new study brings home an issue that is discussed at length in Patrick Malone’s book, The Life You Save: Nine Steps to Finding the Best Medical Care — and Avoiding the Worst. Choosing the right surgeon is key to success, and patients need to ask about the surgeon’s volume of cases exactly like theirs. For robotic prostate surgery, it’s easy to find a surgeon with hundreds of cases. If that’s an option, why would anyone settle for a surgeon who has only done a few dozen?

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