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Science fiction becomes science fact: But is a robot surgery safe?

Picture 020Would you trust a robot to perform or help perform surgery on you? Not that long ago, the idea would have seemed like science fiction. But last year, hundreds of thousands of surgeries were completed with the assistance of a robot.

One of the most popular robotic surgical devices in the U.S. is named da Vinci. Da Vinci is used for operations that include removing prostates, gall bladders and wombs; repairing heart valves; shrinking stomachs; and transplanting organs. It is the only robotic system approved for soft-tissue surgery by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Other robotic devices have been approved for other types of operations, including neurosurgery and orthopedics.

Nearly 1 out of 4 U.S. hospitals have at least one da Vinci system, at a cost of $1.45 million each. The da Vinci system includes a three- or four-armed robot that surgeons control using a computer system several feet from the patient. A tiny video camera attached to one of the robotic arms allows them to see inside the patient’s body. The other arms are tipped with surgical devices.

Proponents of the system point out that for the surgeons who control the robot while sitting at a computer screen the operation is less tiring, and robot hands don’t shake.

However, the FDA is taking a closer look at the daVinci after a spike in reported problems. At least five deaths since early last year have been attributed to the device. An FDA spokeswoman said the increase could simply be due to more awareness among doctors and hospitals.

It also could be due to wider use. In 2012, there were 367,000 robot-assisted surgeries compared to 114,000 in 2008, according to Intuitive Surgical, Inc., the maker of daVinci. Many U.S. hospitals are promoting robot surgery in patient brochures, on their websites, and even on billboards. One 2011 study found that 40 percent of hospitals promote robotic surgery on their websites.

Most of the problems associated with da Vinci are related to a lack of training and experience for the doctors using the system. Intuitive said they have trainers who teach surgeons how to use the robot, but they do not train them how to do specific procedures. It is up to hospitals and surgeons to decide when a surgeon is ready. A 2010 essay in the New England Journal of Medicine said surgeons should do at least 150 procedures before they are adept at using the system.

As with all new medical devices, proper study and evaluation must be done before robotic devices become even more widespread. Surgeons should not be allowed to use the robotic systems for surgery until they feel comfortable with the device and can use the system as easily as they can use their own arms to perform surgery. Patient safety can not be trampled in an effort to implement new technology.

So would you let a robot operate on you? Let us know in the comments.