Sometimes, reality is lost in the love for medical device technology. Just because something’s new doesn’t mean it’s better. A recent statement by the president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists advises caution when it comes to robotic surgery for hysterectomies.
Dr. James T. Breeden states, “Robotic surgery is not the only or the best minimally invasive approach for hysterectomy. Nor is it the most cost-efficient. It is important to separate the marketing hype from the reality when considering the best surgical approach for hysterectomies.”
As in other surgeries, patients are given general anesthesia for robotic surgery. The surgeon uses a computer to direct a robotic arm in the control of tiny instruments inserted through small surgical incisions. An endoscope-a thin tube with a camera at the end-enables the surgeon to see magnified, three-dimensional images on a monitor.
We’ve noted some of the harms of robotic surgery, including tearing internal tissue and burning internal organs, and that in some procedures, their outcomes are no better than those of traditional surgery.
Lawsuits are rising against surgeons who commit malpractice with robotic machines and against the manufacturers who make them.
As Breeden points out, outcomes are directly associated with a surgeon’s skill, not just the tools he or she uses. Skill comes with years of training and practice, and any new technology comes with increased complications while the learning curve is mastered.
“Expertise with robotic hysterectomy is limited and varies widely among both hospitals and surgeons,” Breeden says. “While there may be some advantages to the use of robotics in complex hysterectomies, especially for cancer operations that require extensive surgery and removal of lymph nodes, studies have shown that adding this expensive technology for routine surgical care does not improve patient outcomes.
Consequently, there is no good data proving that robotic hysterectomy is even as good as-let alone better-than existing, and far less costly, minimally invasive alternatives.”
Because the incisions are smaller and the procedure less invasive, robotic hysterectomy usually means shorter hospitalization, less discomfort and faster recovery compared with other approaches. But, often, a hysterectomy can be performed vaginally, without any abdominal incision. That’s the least invasive and least expensive option. “Based on its well-documented advantages and low complication rates, this is the procedure of choice whenever technically feasible,” Breeden says.
When vaginal hysterectomy isn’t possible, laparoscopic hysterectomy is the second least invasive and costly option for patients. That involves a smaller abdominal incision than total abdominal hysterectomy (TAH).
Both vaginal and laparoscopic procedures require fewer days of hospitalization and shorter recovery than TAH, and they have proven records for excellent outcomes and cost efficiencies.
But hospitals spend a lot of money on fancy robotic technology, and many surgeons are like kids with the latest Game Boy-as the saying goes, when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
Even if safety weren’t a consideration-and it always should be the primary concern-robotic hysterectomy should be scrutinized for its expense, Breeden says. Robots cost more than $1.7 million, and have $125,000 in annual maintenance costs.
Breeden refers to a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) finding that the percentage of hysterectomies performed robotically jumped in the last three years from less than 1 in 100 to 1 in 10. They were more than $2,000 more expensive for the patient and showed no demonstrable benefit.
“Aggressive direct-to-consumer marketing of the latest medical technologies may mislead the public into believing that [robotic hysterectomy is] the best choice,” Breeden says. “Our patients deserve and need factual information about all of their treatment options, including costs, so that they can make truly informed health-care decisions. Patients should be advised that robotic hysterectomy is best used for unusual and complex clinical conditions in which improved outcomes over standard minimally invasive approaches have been demonstrated.”
Cost concerns aside, patients must consider safety. As reported by AboutLawsuits.com, an increasing number of lawsuits have been filed resulting from the use specifically of the da Vinci robotic device.
Bloomberg News told the story of one patient. Uterine growths were removed with a da Vinci robot, described by her gynecologist as “the latest, greatest” technique available.
Five weeks later, she felt something pop while she was using the toilet, and glanced down to see her intestine protruding from her vagina. The vaginal wound had failed to heal properly. Four years later, Blooomberg reports, the 41-year-old has a hip-to-hip scar from corrective surgery, constipation from damaged rectal muscles and a diminished sex life.
“It didn’t help me one bit, the robot,” she told the news site. “It forever changed my life for the worse.”
Robot systems made by Intuitive Surgical Inc., including the da Vinci, are linked to at least 70 deaths since 2009, says Bloomberg.
“Many of the complaints allege that a potential cause of the da Vinci problems is a lack of training provided for doctors who use the device, particularly at smaller hospitals where there is not a large volume of procedures,” AboutLawsuits notes. “In addition, lawsuits indicate that many hospitals feel pressured by competition and marketing to buy a da Vinci, and then doctors are encouraged to use the machine as often as possible to help the hospital recoup costs.”
Those are not compelling reasons for patients to agree to undergo the robotic knife.