Saturday, December 18, 2010

Robotic Surgery

There has been a flood of people requesting robotic surgery, especially men with prostate cancer, and I fear that they are not aware of all the pertinent facts. These men seem to think that robotic surgery is superior (i.e. more curative), and therefore have greater disappointment when the cancer returns. I have certain biases against robotic surgery, both medical and economic, and I would like to explain these to you, with reference to both general (open) and laparoscopic ("mini") surgery.

First some background, and an explanation of what robotic surgery really entails. The first surgery, of course, was "regular" surgery, which left a long scar because the surgeon needs adequate exposure to visualize the surgical field and its surroundings, and thereby minimize the chance of transecting the common bile duct during gall bladder surgery, etc. The need for adequate field of view was drilled into the heads of all surgical residents. The result for cholecystectomies was usually a long (8 to 12 inch) scar under and parallel to the lowest right rib, and a 10 day recovery period in the hospital. The surgery was almost always done after a severe gallbladder attack, with the idea of preventing a second severe attack and possible ascending cholangitis.

Laparoscopic surgery  typically involves only four small incisions in the abdomen, each no longer than an inch. Lights and a TV camera are  inserted, and the surgeon then directly manipulates his/her instruments to remove the gall bladder. They have gotten so skilled at this that last year a surgeon removed a gall bladder through the superior vaginal wall (!), leaving no abdominal scar whatsoever. In addition, because of minimal incisional tissue damage, the time in the hospital after a laparoscopic cholecystectomy was reduced from ten to three days, and now it may be as little as two. Therefore there  is less trauma and faster healing than under the old method, and it was thought that with fewer days in the hospital, the nationwide annual cost of cholecystectomies would decrease. Unfortunately, as shown by an article in NEJM 10-15 years ago, this was not the case. The surgery was so "easy" that  satisfied patients informed their friends, and  more and more patients with asymptomatic gall stones elected to have the laparoscopic cholecystectomy. The overall result was that the annual total cost of gall bladder surgery increased in the United States.

Now we come to robotic surgery. It is essential to remember that the FDA does NOT have to clear or approve of any new surgical technique, unless a medical device (artificial hip, heart valve) is implanted. If I wanted to drill a hole in your head to let the "evil humors" escape,, and you were agreeable, then it is a go.
If I wanted to remove your gall bladder through an endoscope, it is also a go. In robotic surgery, several  things are true that are not true for laparoscopic surgery:

(1)  There is an extra $3,000 added to the cost of the surgery,---$1500 for the instruments that have to be disposed, and $1500 to amortize the cost of the equipment. Whether or not Medicare or your HMNO will pay the extra expense is a separate question.

(2) There is no direct tactile feel by the surgeon on your organs. Even with laparoscopic surgery, the instruments are directly moved by his hands, and he can feel resistance, texture, etc. But in robotic surgery, he types in commands to a computer console, and the computer then moves the instruments. It is true that the computer has finer motions than human hands, but it has no "feel", and the patient also has to hope that the program was properly entered, not like the CT scans of the brain or the gamma-ray vs. electron beam treatment of tumors where the wrong button was pushed or the wrong program entered, and the patient's tissues were fried. So the robotic surgeon is deprived of tactile feedback.

(3) Most important of all: There is a sharp learning curve in robotic surgery, precisely because of the lack of tactile feedback. It has been estimated that it takes between 50 to 100 robotic operations on the prostate for the surgeon to become proficient enough so that the results and the time of robotic surgery equals that of non-robotic surgery. Skin-to-skin prostate surgery takes 2 to 2.5 hours, and the first time a surgeon uses the robot it can take 4.5 to 5.0 hours, and the depressive effect of anesthesia on your heart and lungs increases after 2.5 hours. Therefore, the first question you should ask any surgeon who wants to to robotic prostate or heart valve or any other critical surgery on you is : HOW MANY OF THESE ROBOTIC OPERATIONS HAVE YOU DONE? If the answer is fewer than 50, I, for one, would not let him/her touch me. It makes you wonder: Who "volunteered" to be the surgeon's first robotic surgery patient, and did the patient know that he/she was the first? Did the surgeon tell the patient?

1 comment:

  1. A recent study comparing laparoscopic with robotic gynecological surgery showed no medical advantage of robotic surgery,but robotic surgery increased the cost of the surgery by $2,000.