Insurers should stop paying for robotic hysterectomies

A new study confirms what previous studies tell us. That a robotic hysterectomy is not a safer or a more efficient way to remove a uterus for non-cancerous (benign) surgery than a traditional laparoscopic approach. This study indicates that there is little difference between the two types of surgery with one glaring exception, a robotic hysterectomy was $2,489 more expensive than a laparoscopic hysterectomy.

Several months ago the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) issued these statements:

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.

And,

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.

Robotic hysterectomies for benign disease provide nothing additional from a medical perspective although they are a welcome marketing ploy for doctors and hospitals (Hey, we have a robot! Come see us! That’s so cool!). Some hospitals and GYN practices have literally built their marketing around the robot. And obviously the more robotic hysterectomies performed the greater the profits for the makers of the da Vinci robot.

There is enough data for insurance companies to say, “We won’t pay the price difference.” If insurance companies capped hysterectomy fees at the cost of a laparoscopic procedure then if hospitals and doctors wanted to eat the price difference or pass that price difference along to their patients, so be it.

Wasting money on a procedure that offers nothing over a less expensive alternative is an outrage. As an aside, this is the biggest issue I have with Obamacare. We should all be insured, but doctors, hospitals, and medical device companies should not be allowed to take advantage of that. The need to curtail egregious expenses is urgent. A robotic hysterectomy does offer advantageous for cancer surgery, so I’m all over that, but isn’t it better to channel the money to where it can actually improve outcomes?

And so my plea is to insurance companies. Whether procedures and drugs are covered or not depends in a large part on the body of medical literature and recommendations by professional organizations (like ACOG). There is not one study that shows the benefit of robotic hysterectomy over a traditional laparoscopic approach. Since the doctors and hospitals that push robotic hysterectomies don’t have the ethics to police themselves, insurance companies must step in and stop the madness. Insurance companies can either flat-out deny robotic hysterectomies or simply cap what they will pay at the cost of a traditional laparoscopic procedure. If there were a $2,489 co-payment for a robotic hysterectomy versus a $200 co-payment for a laparoscopic hysterectomy, given they have similar outcomes, which do you think would be more popular?

It is wrong to pass the additional cost of a more expensive and non medically advantageous procedure along to other purchasers of the same insurance. I don’t want my premiums to go for medically unindicated expenses and I certainly don’t want my premiums paying for corporate perks at Intuitive Surgical (makers of the da Vinci, and who are, by the way, laughing all the way to the bank).

Given that we are all curators of the health care system it is unethical to recommend robotic hysterectomies for benign disease. If doctors and hospitals refuse to read the literature (never mind reducing the waste in the system) then they should not be surprised at all when a third party steps in to do it for them.

Someone has to help stop the madness.

Jennifer Gunter is an obstetrician-gynecologist and author of The Preemie Primer. She blogs at her self-titled site, Dr. Jen Gunter.

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