A New Study Just Found The One Big Problem With Robot Surgeries

There’s one big problem with robotic surgery that will keep your human doctor on the payroll: It’s not better, and much more expensive.

Since the first robotic surgery was performed in 1985, the popularity of robotic surgery has exploded, yet a study published Dec. 18 in JAMA Surgery suggests that there’s still a long way to go to make it a viable everyday surgical option.

Robots increase the cost of surgery, the paper concludes, without actually being better than the more-established laparoscopic surgery, which involves small incision and a tiny camera.

The researchers examined the outcomes of thousands of colectomies (an operation to remove all or part of the colon) performed between 2008 and 2010. A little more than half were what you might think of as classic surgery, where the doctor makes a long incision to operate directly on the colon, and about 48 per cent were laparoscopic. The remaining 0.6 per cent were robotic — a small fraction that has been growing exponentially, from 0.1 per cent in 2008 to 0.9 per cent in 2010.

Laparoscopic colectomies were clearly superior to old-fashioned slice-em-open colectomies — generally causing fewer complications and shorter hospital stays. Robotic surgery appeared to be equally safe and effective as laparoscopic surgeries.

That sounds good, but it also means they weren’t more safe or effective. A JAMA study earlier this year came to a similar conclusion about hysterectomies.

For now though, the main difference between the two newer techniques is in cost. The median overall price tag on a hospital stay for an open colectomy was $US13,911, while the quicker recovery time for laparoscopic colectomies brings that down to $US10,782 — a significant cost reduction, if not quite a bargain.

But robotic colectomies were the priciest hospital experience of all, ringing in at a median of $14,847 — or a little less than half the price of just buying the robot yourself.

The bottom line is this: While hospitals like to tout their robotic surgery suites, these new technologies currently offer little benefit to patients. Some researchers have even raised concerns that the risks of these robotic surgeries are not fully understood.

The researchers note that this could change in the future, as the technology evolves and surgeons become more skilled using it.

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