The Dangers of Robotic Surgery

Defective Medical Devices

By David Carnes, Staff Writer

The idea of robotic surgery might seem futuristic and glamorous to some – after all, for many tasks people already trust machines more than they trust people. No system is foolproof, however, and robotic surgery involves its own special dangers, many of which have yet to be adequately addressed by the medical community and government regulators.

Robot-assisted surgery is designed to enhance the capabilities of surgeons performing both minimally invasive and open surgery. Among its benefits, robot-assisted surgery is thought to reduce the risk of infections and allow for quicker healing. In many cases, robotic surgery does not even require the surgeon to be in the operating room during much of the surgery, allowing them to treat many patients at once (and earn more in the process).

The Problem

University researchers studied more than 10,000 incident reports concerning adverse effects from robotic surgery that were filed with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration between 2000 and 2013 by hospitals, medical professionals, manufacturers and patients. The report found that complications resulted in 144 deaths, 1,391 patient injuries and 8,061 malfunctions. Because the study relied solely on FDA reports, actual figures could be much higher. Even more disturbingly, the number of such complications has been rising every year due to increasing use of robotic assistance during surgery.

A variety of adverse incidents were reported including:

A robot used to perform hysterectomies, known as a power morcellator, can spread cancer cells.

  • Parts falling into patients’ bodies

  • Ucontrolled power outages during surgery

  • Uncontrolled movements

  • Charring of patients’ bodies by electrical sparks

  • Other causes of injuries and deaths that were identified by the study.

Some of the dangers of robotic surgery are not immediately apparent. One robot used to perform hysterectomies, known as a power morcellator, grinds uterine tissue into tiny pieces that can be removed through small incisions in the patient’s body. If the tissue contains cancer cells, the extraction process can inadvertently deposit these cells into the patient’s abdomen or pelvis, thereby eventually spreading cancer throughout the patient’s body.    

Needed Reforms

Although robot-assisted surgery offers great promise, the unprepared or indiscriminate use of robots has the potential to stop the medical robot revolution dead in its tracks. To prevent this from happening, the medical industry needs to get its act together fast. At the very least, the following reforms are needed:

  • Reporting: Beef up FDA reporting requirements for hospitals, doctors and manufacturers. The study in question had to rely on bare-bones incident reports in many cases because a great deal of useful information was missing from the FDA incident reports. Adequate reporting can help identify problems and fix them before they harm more patients.

  • Training: Strengthen training requirements for surgeons and medical technicians who operate the robots. A significant number of the FDA-reported incidents were caused by technical errors in the operation of the robots. Even if no technical mistakes are made, medical professionals need to learn how to troubleshoot in order to deal with inevitable equipment malfunctions before the patient is harmed.

  • Advertising: End aggressive consumer marketing techniques that may mislead patients into believing that robotic surgery is safer than it really is. Additionally, surgeons should not be misled into recommending robotic surgery when traditional surgery would be cheaper and less risky.

The risks associated with technological progress in the medical industry cannot be entirely avoided. Nevertheless, robotic surgery should not be treated as a fashionable and expensive alternative to traditional surgery when it subjects patients to unwarranted and preventable risks.

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