When we think of robots easing burdens for humans, we may think of Rosie from The Jetsonsor the droids from Star Wars. But robots are already helping us with surgeries in real life. The robotics firm Intuitive Surgical has rolled out a product called the da Vinci Surgical System, which has four arms: three for performing tasks and a fourth fitted with a camera through which flesh-and-blood surgeons can view a surgical site in 3-D. They operate the unit with a series of two hand controllers and two foot pedals.
The da Vinci robot was first approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2000 and since then has been employed to perform minimally invasive surgical procedures like prostate, cardiac and gynecological operations. Many doctors see the robot as an improvement on traditional surgery, which is riddled with minor inconveniences: doctors rely on their assistants to hold cameras correctly and steadily, they often perform procedures while looking at a screen rather than their own hands and instruments, and human hands are obviously prone to unsteadiness, fatigue and cramping. The da Vinci unit allows one individual to have control of a 3-D imager, minutely articulate instruments and to be seated while working on a patient.
Surely it sounds like the da Vinci machine is the future. The Los Angeles Times reports that from 2008—2011, use of the device quadrupled, with around 2,000 units operating as of October 2011.
But there are many problems the developers did not foresee. First, the manufacturer provides only two days’ worth of training. Hospitals are responsible for additional training, which could take months or years. One urological journal says that a doctor should have at least 200 cases under his or her belt to be considered proficient. One Boston surgeon, Jim Hu, claims that urologists need between 250 and 700 cases to master it. Moreover, each device costs between $1 and $2 million and a robotically-assisted procedure costs around $1,600 more than its traditional alternative.
Even with experienced doctors operating, there have been many reports of medical injuries. Some claim that the metal arms conduct electricity from the device’s circuitry, which can arc and burn patients during operations. Others claim that the strong motor-driven arms can easily tear tissue and organs, without the surgeon even noticing. The Wall Street Journal’s MarketWatch blog reports: “The common types of injuries are tears and burns, to blood vessels, intestines, uterus and vaginal cuff dehiscence. Often these injuries are delayed in their appearance after the actual surgery.” It also details the case of a man in New York who claims that a da Vinci robot caused his daughter’s death two weeks after a hysterectomy by burning her arteries and intestines. Another woman in Alabama has filed suit against Intuitive Surgical, claiming the machine created a pelvic abscess along her vaginal cuff that necessitated another surgery. Even after that surgery, she remains in constant pain.
It seems as if we should approach this new technology with skepticism. Once it has been more finely tuned, we may see great results. But for now, it seems as if it is just adding to the complexity of existing medical negligence with a potentially defective medical device in the hands of undertrained doctors.