Officials investigate surgical robot's role in injuries; manufacturer, others cite training issue

Despite a dip in Intuitive Surgical Inc.'s (ISRG) stocks yesterday after an article in the Wall Street Journal highlighted concerns about the safety and cost-benefit of its da Vinci surgical robot, the manufacturer and others contend that the innovation is only as dangerous as its user.

In the words of healthcare investment analyst Rick Wise, "if the doctor isn't trained and doesn't do a lot of procedures, even a scalpel would be an unsafe piece of technology."

Jim Hu, a surgeon at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston who has done more than 1,000 surgeries with the robot, told the newspaper that it takes a urologist anywhere from 250 to 700 cases to master it. While endorsing the robot's clear benefit to experienced surgeons, Hu said it can do more harm than good when used without adequate training.

And a study published in the Journal of Urology found that a hospital needs to do at least 520 surgeries a year with the robot to bring its costs--which range from $1 million to $2.25 million, plus maintenance--in line with traditional surgery.

Wentworth-Douglass, the small New England hospital at the center of the recent concern, used its $1.4 million model about 300 times in four years, during which several patients suffered serious injuries, including bladder lacerations and cut ureters. Following the incidents, two surgeons underwent remedial training on the robot and one was temporarily placed under the oversight of another surgeon when she resumed using the robot, the WSJ reports.

Aleks Cukic, Intuitive Surgical's vice president of strategy, says the robot's learning curve "varies from procedure to procedure and from surgeon to surgeon." He adds: "There's no number" of surgeries required to master the device.

To learn more:
- read this Wall Street Journal piece
- check out this second WSJ article