The popularity of robotic-assisted surgery has exploded in recent years, with these systems rapidly becoming a must have for high-end health care facilities. This technique has been particularly rapidly adopted for urology procedures such as prostatectomies due to the fact that the angles used in these procedures make traditional laparoscopy uncomfortable and difficult for surgeons nearly 80% of prostatectomies removed in the US were removed with Intuitive Surgical's da Vinci system, by far the most common surgical robot in use. But do the benefits of these robots really justify the cost?

This question was examined recently in an article in the French newspaper Le Monde . This article argued that these robotic systems have largely become a showcase item for health care facilities the presence of these systems can have a very positive effect on the reputation of a hospital and can help it to attract industry-leading surgeons as well as more patients. In fact, Intuitive Surgical actively helps in this respect by maintaining a list of trained surgeons on its Web site, which is a great marketing tool for both surgeons and hospitals. During the surgery itself, these devices are more comfortable for physicians than conventional surgery because surgical robots allow them to perform it from a seated position while manipulating the robotic arms. The robots are also thought to eliminate human error in fiddly procedures, potentially reducing some of the blame that could be associated with the surgeon if the procedure went wrong.

The article argues that the benefits of these devices for patients are, however, questionable and unproven. While some publications have reported reductions in bleeding and quicker recover times, others have found the opposite, such as the study covered in this article . Other studies have also found less than stellar results; for example, a recent study examining laparoscopic repair of vaginal prolapse versus robotic-assisted laparoscopy found that while both groups yielded excellent results one year postsurgery, the women treated via robotic-assisted surgery suffered from longer procedure times as well as greater postoperative pain at 3 to 5 weeks. And these systems are not cheap one robot in the US can cost as much as $2.3 million, not including the high cost of training and of the surgical accessories, which need to be frequently replaced.

So with extremely high costs and unproven benefits, how has the adoption of these systems managed to be so high. Intuitive Surgical definitely deserves some credit in this respect he popularity of these systems has been an absolute marketing win. And Intuitive Surgical is definitely patting itself on the back for achieving stunning 24% revenue growth in 2011 over 2010. Of course, for the reasons mentioned above, surgeons have a strong reason to demand their hospitals purchase these systems as well. Unless clinical evidence can prove the conclusive benefits of these devices for patients, however, it's possible that the adoption of these devices will subside to some extent in the coming years, especially until the economy shows signs of stability...but there definitely hasn't been evidence of this yet.

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