Error: robotic surgical device might not be so smart after all

Soft-tissue surgeries like prostate removals, hysterectomies, stomach-shrinking and the like are increasingly being performed in Pennsylvania and elsewhere with the use of an FDA-approved robotic system known as da Vinci. The operation is conducted via the movements that a surgeon directs the robot to do from a computer. This robotic device is heralded by some doctors for its precision, faster recovery times and smaller incisions — in addition to making procedures less taxing for the surgeons conducting the operations.

The idea of being cut open and having an organ removed or modified by a robot is initially alarming for many patients in Pennsylvania. Can you trust your health to something without a brain? A spokesperson for da Vinci says the device “has an excellent safety record with over 1.5 million surgeries performed globally, and total adverse event rates have remained low and in line with historical trends.”

However, as surgeries conducted with this device have increased in recent years, an influx of freak accidents has been reported, including five deaths. So the question becomes: Are these accidents a result of the product malfunctioning? Or are surgeons being improperly trained and negligently using the device?

Following the death of a patient in 2007 that was undergoing a spleen surgery with this device, a medical malpractice suit was filed alleging that the death was the doctor’s fault for causing an infection after puncturing the victim’s intestines. In this case, the maker of the device was not held liable, but rather the doctors conducting the surgery were held liable for misusing the device. The family of the victim was awarded a $7.5 million jury award.

It does appear as though the FDA is currently conducting a survey of surgeons that use this device in order to get a better picture of safety and the effectiveness of its use on patients.

Source: CBS News, “FDA eyes increase in freak accidents during robotic surgeries,” Associated Press, April 9, 2013

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