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Robotic surgery may not be as reliable as advertised

In recent years, the medical profession has seen a sharp uptick in the number of robotically-assisted surgeries performed in hospitals in Pennsylvania and across the country. Surgical robots are expensive, high-tech devices that allow the surgeon to operate the robot using a computer console. The belief is that since the robot has steadier hands than a human, robot-assisted surgeries must be more accurate and less invasive than traditional surgeries.

It has been widely believed that the increased use of these robots has been spurred on by doctors, many of whom have enthusiastically embraced the new devices. A new report by Bloomberg, however, questions whether the robots are as good as they're cracked up to be.

The investigation found that surgical errors were just as common in robot-assisted surgeries as in traditional surgeries. In fact, no study has conclusively proven that robotically-assisted surgeries are safer or more effective than regular ones. They do, however, cost thousands of dollars more.

Medical device companies aggressively advertise the multi-million dollar robots in an attempt to drive sales. These advertisements have, in some cases, been found to ignore contradictory claims and make assertions of health benefits without substantial proof. The FDA has only two employees on staff to regulate advertisements for medical devices, meaning that unsubstantiated claims could be slipping through the cracks.

Such advertisements present doctors and the public with only positive information about robotically- assisted surgery, but never the negatives. However, negative outcomes can occur. One doctor, for example, performed 10 negative-outcome surgeries with a robot in a 3-year period. Those negative outcomes included punctured arteries, objects left inside the body, nerve damage and even death.

Though robotic assistants have spread throughout hospitals in Pennsylvania and across the country, there is still a question over whether they provide any meaningful advantage to patients. Perhaps one day robots will be the answer to all surgical errors, but that time is still in the future.

Source: Bloomberg, "Misleading marketing helps rise of robotic surgery" Robert Langreth, Oct. 20, 2013

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