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Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Robotic surgery popular, expensive, but is it more effective?

Medill Reports
March 7, 2012

Da Vinci surgeries like this one may not be any more effective than the cheaper traditional surgeries. Credit: Lisa Weidenfeld/MEDILL

The new Da Vinci surgical robot is a hit with patients, who request it for all kinds of procedures. But is it really more effective than traditional surgery -- or just more expensive? Some doctors argue that without much authoritative research, the Da Vinci robot is more a marketing tool than an improvement to surgery.

Surgeries performed with the new, high-tech, da Vinci robot use a narrower blade and provide greater precision than traditional open surgeries, which are performed with a scalpel. The machines are maneuvered by a surgeon operating the robotic arms from behind a nearby console.

There are 2,132 da Vinci systems world-wide, said Chris Simmonds, senior director of marketing services for manufacturer Intuitive Surgical, Inc. and that number is growing. But they do not come cheap. The machines each cost between $1.1 million and $2 million, with an additional cost of $100 thousand to $180 thousand for maintenance annually.

In a 2011 study from Johns Hopkins University about the marketing of the da Vinci robot, 41 percent of hospital websites included a description of robotic surgery, with 89 percent of those descriptions claiming clinical superiority. Despite this claim, only 2 percent of those hospitals made a specific comparison to open or laparoscopic surgery, which involves inserting a camera through an incision. The marketing for robotic surgery may win over more converts than the results of the surgeries.

“You start to see this is not just a trivial issue of exuberant marketing, but it is in some cases potentially inaccurate and really harmful, potentially harmful information, wrapped in the glitz and the glamor of a new technology,” said Gary Schwitzer, publisher of, a site devoted to reviewing media coverage of “medical treatments, tests, products and procedures.” Schwitzer has been reporting on health issues for more than 30 years.
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