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Robotic Surgery: Do Dangers Trump its 'Wow' Factor?

robotic surgery system by Da vinciMore and more product liability law firms in the nation are hearing about a new antagonist in the operating room. It's not a negligent doctor or careless member of the hospital staff.

We're talking about a million-dollar, multi-armed robot named Da Vinci that was used in hundreds of thousands of surgeries just last year - about 400,000 surgical procedures to be precise. That is three times the number from just four years ago.

It is apparent that this mechanical helper soared in popularity with hospitals and doctors over the last few years.

Many even believe that these robots were part of the "wow" factor that attracted patients to certain hospitals. But now, these robots are under scrutiny after many reports of problems including nerve injuries, infections, lacerations and even deaths that have been linked to it.

In addition, there were also been frightening incidents including a robotic hand that grabbed on to tissue during surgery and refused to let go. There was another report of a robotic arm hitting a patient in the face as she lay on the operating table.

Marketing of Robot Surgery

Certainly, these incidents raise red flags and send us the message that it is time to put the brakes on this "robotmania." Many are worried that there is a powerful marketing machine behind this boost in the use of robot surgeons. Many experts argue that there is no solid research, which shows that this type of surgery is good or better than traditional surgeries.

Robotic surgery is marketed in hospital brochures, websites and even on highway billboards with the hope that patients eager to undergo such treatment will help pay for the expensive robot. So far, the Da Vinci system has been used in a variety of surgical procedures including prostates, gallbladders, uterus, heart and organ transplants.

How Robotic Surgery Works

Robot-assisted surgery is one where instruments and cameras are inserted through small incisions. The surgeon sits at a console next to the patient. He or she then looks into a viewfinder at the three-dimensional image sent back by the cameras and works the surgical arms using hand and foot controls.

The quality of the images and the precise movement of the robotic arms essentially put the surgeon right next to the area in which he or she is operating. It is important to note that this surgery is not actually performed by a robot. It is performed by a surgeon who is assisted by a robot.

FDA Investigation

The FDA is now looking into a spike in reported problems relating to robotic surgery after receiving an increased number of adverse incident reports last year, including five deaths. According to the manufacturer of Da Vinci, 367,000 robot-assisted surgeries were performed in 2012 compared to 114,000 in 2008.

There were about 500 reports of problems related to robotic surgery just last year, according to the FDA's database. This includes cases where a woman died during a hysterectomy after a surgeon-controlled robot sliced a blood vessel. Another man died after his colon was perforated during prostate surgery.

There were at least two other incident reports where the robotic arms malfunctioned during surgery. The FDA is still looking into what is causing these problems during surgery. Intuitive, the company that makes the robots, says there has been an increase in incidents because of a change it made last year in the way it reported these incidents.

But safety advocates are skeptical about that assertion. Some experts have argued that incidents relating to robotic surgery have been underreported. Many experts are also concerned that the surgeons are not receiving sufficient training about how to use these robots.

Patients Need More Information

The incidents involving robotic surgery are downright scary. There have not been sufficient studies into what is causing these malfunctions. Have the robots been defectively designed?

Did the robots that malfunctioned have defective parts on them? How much time did the manufacturer spend testing these robots? What is the training that surgeons receive before they actually start using them? There are still these and many other unanswered questions when it comes to robotic surgery.

In such a situation, patients must get the facts - not marketing material. They need to speak with their doctors about the dangers and potential risks of robotic surgery.

It is wrong on the part of the manufacturer as well hospitals to lead patients into believing that robotic surgeries are fail-proof, much safer and a better alternative than regular surgery.

The jury is out on these issues. Until then, it is important that anyone who is about to undergo surgery talks to his or her doctor. It is crucial to understand the pros and cons of this procedure so that you can make an informed decision regarding your course of treatment.

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