Are da Vinci surgical complications the fault of the robot?

The daVinci surgical robot is a multi-million dollar device that more hospitals are using for urologic and gynecological surgery.

I wrote previously on the topic, saying that robotic surgery is, in part, driven by patient demand.

The Wall Street Journal had a scathing piece on the robot a few weeks ago, exposing the relatively high complication rates at a small New Hampshire hospital.

The issue comes down the training, or lack thereof, at these small hospitals:

At Wentworth-Douglass, however, the robot has been used in several surgeries where injuries occurred. One patient operated on days after the hockey game was so badly injured that she required four more procedures to repair the damage. In earlier robotic surgeries, two patients suffered lacerated bladders.

There’s no evidence to suggest the injuries at Wentworth-Douglass were caused by technical malfunctions. Surgeons who use the da Vinci regularly say the robot is technologically sound and an asset in the hands of well-trained doctors. But they caution that it requires considerable practice.

Paul Levy, CEO at Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital, was forced to buy one for his institution, saying that he had to keep up with the “medical arms race.” Smaller hospitals are under similar pressure, despite little data showing that the robot provides better patient care.

But are the complications really the fault of the robot, or the fact that hospitals are rushing to perform robot-assisted procedures?

In a response to the WSJ piece, a patient writes that some surgeons are indeed cognizant of the experience needed to operate the robot safely:

Before surgery I met with numerous doctors in some of the best institutions near Virginia. I chose UVA and Dr. Steers because he had done well over 500 (he stopped counting) of these operations with success. He has a number of young, talented surgeons on his team, but until they get the right experience they will not operate using the da Vinci.

Not all technologically modern medical marvels provide the best care. Especially in these cases, it’s imperative that patients inquire about the surgeon’s experience with the device before proceeding with a da Vinci robot assisted operation.

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