Da Vinci Robotic Surgery Racks Up More Trouble

It’s another episode in the continuing drama of technology lust. Device manufacturers love to market their new, advanced and invariably expensive wares, hospitals love to leverage them for marketing and bill-enhancement, and doctors love them like middle-schoolers love the latest version of the iPad.

But the Da Vinci Surgical System continues to rack up a troubling record of patient harm. The robotic device, used in a variety of surgical procedures, enables surgeons looking at 3-D images through eyeholes to maneuver multiple arms with a joystick and perform surgery through tiny incisions. We’ve raised previous concerns about Da Vinci, and its most recent problem reports involve accidental tears and burns to internal organs, according to AboutLawsuits.com. Some of these adverse effects require multiple surgeries to repair, and some its patients have died.

Intuitive Surgical Inc., which manufactures Da Vinci, promotes the robot’s treatment of bladder, colorectal, gynecologic, kidney, prostate and throat cancers. It’s also marketed for coronary artery disease, endometriosis, heavy uterine bleeding, kidney disorders and obesity.

Questions about whether surgeons are being trained adequately in the use of the machine, and whether the higher cost of using it is worthwhile, are growing louder. A recent report by the Office of Medical and Scientific Justice joined the chorus of concern.

Da Vinci is complicated, and the journal Reviews in Urology said it can take 200 cases for some surgeons to become proficient with robotic surgery. Often, patients experience inferior outcomes while their doctors are scaling this learning curve. Some surgeons, the journal reported, simply don’t have patient volume sufficient to master the technique.

At a cost between $1 million and $2 million, the machines are used by hospitals to gain competitive edge, and surgeons may feel pressure to employ Da Vinci before they’re ready. In fact, the Journal of Clinical Oncology suggested that the increased cost of this technology over that of a traditional hysterectomy did not bring a noticeable benefit. The journal also said that women treated for endometrial cancer had about the same complication rates through traditional laparoscopy as they did with Da Vinci surgery, but that Da Vinci cost about $1,300 more.

Lawsuits prompted by the most common problems involve tears and burns to blood vessels, intestines and reproductive organs, complicated by the fact that problems generally aren’t apparent until after surgery, resulting in delayed treatment.

One lawsuit concerns a woman who suffered an artery burn during her hysterectomy. That prompted blood to pump directly into her body cavity, requiring three subsequent emergency surgeries. She died a couple weeks after the initial surgery. The lawsuit claims that Intuitive Surgical failed to adequately research the device or warn patients and the medical community that its use comes with substantial risk of complications and injuries.

Is Da Vinci defective? Is it defective only in less than skilled hands? Is it defective only for some applications?

Maybe lawsuits will answer these questions, maybe not. In the meantime, find out if there is a safer, equivalent means of performing your surgery. If your surgeon is adamant about using the device, ask how many such procedures he or she has performed. Ask how long the hospital has owned the device, and if you can see adverse reports about it. Consult the Manufacturer and User Facility Device Experience (MAUDE), a public database of voluntary reports of adverse events involving medical devices.

Just because your surgeon, your hospital and a manufacturer are excited about technology doesn’t mean it works for everyone.