Why robot-assisted surgery might have just reached a turning point

Uptake of surgical robots has been slow up until now, largely because the medical benefits were unclear. A new landmark study may change that

A da Vinci surgical robot being demonstrated

A da Vinci surgical robot being demonstrated. (Intuitive Surgical)

Last week saw the release of an interesting study on the effectiveness of robot surgeons – and an even more interesting take on it by the media.

Most outlets focused on the positive – that the da Vinci surgical system is just as effective as its human counterparts, if not more so.

That’s according to a study published in medical journal The Lancet. Researchers polled more than 250 men who had received prostrate surgeries, both through robot-assisted means and via traditional methods.

Respondents who had robotic surgeries reported less pain after a day and a week, and there were no differences between the two types of patients after 12 weeks when it came to sexual function or urinary control. Both types of respondents returned to work equally as fast.

As ZDNet puts it, “after assessing the patients three months post-operation, the researchers concluded that robotic surgery was just as effective as the human version.”

The Washington Post, however, had another take with its headline: “Expensive robots may not be making surgeons – or patients – much better.”

The Post points out that the da Vinci robots, made by Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Intuitive Surgical, are costly. At $2 million (U.S.) each, they aren’t making surgeries more affordable or lowering hospitals’ expenses.

As one surgeon told the newspaper, “That’s not to say we shouldn’t do it. But we’ve been sold a very expensive technology.”

The problem, according to the story, is that Intuitive Surgical hasn’t had any competition for its robotic surgeons since they were first approved for use in the United States 16 years ago.

If that’s true, then the issue seems to be a classic Catch 22: it’s possible that other robotics makers have been waiting for better data showing the effectiveness of the machines before entering the market.

The Lancet study may prove to be a watershed moment in robotic surgery in that case.

With more solid information showing that machines can perform surgeries just as well as human doctors, if not better, new competitors may finally be spurred into the market – a fact The Washington Post seems to have missed.