The da Vinci debate: Is robotic surgery safe?

MERIDIAN -- The da Vinci debate is heating up, and it's not about art, it's about healthcare. At issue is whether a robotic surgery technique used around the country, including Idaho, is safe.

Criticism has been mounting and some people have filed lawsuits claiming they or family members have been injured or killed because of da Vinci surgeries. A recent CNBC series called even more attention to the debate. Some patients and attorneys claim patients can be burned by the machine.

There's a portion of this arm that's behind the camera, that the surgeon does not see, Dr. Francois Blaudeau, a gynecological surgeon and attorney, told CNBC. As the surgeon uses electical energy at the tip of his instrument, if there's a loss of insulation protection in the upper part of the [robotic] arm, then you can get sparking of electrical monopolar energy from that that can injure adjacent structures. So bowel, bladder, blood vessel.

Idaho surgeons say they are hearing concerns from patients who are interested in the robot-assisted surgery, or who have had the surgery in the past.

Dr. Todd Waldmann, a Meridian urologist with the Idaho Urologic Institute first explained the da Vinci robot to KTVB viewers a decade ago. Despite recent vocal critics, he still believes the robot is safe and a great method for prostate surgery.

In our practice, we have done over 1,000 robotic prostate surgeries between the several of us that do that operation. We have not had a single complication related directly to the robot or a mechanical failure of the robot, Waldmann said.

Waldmann explains there is is a maintenance schedule from the company, and the device gets checked by doctors and the machine itself before operation with a big checklist. If anything is even slightly questionable, he says they don't do surgery.

I have certainly had procedures that didn't happen because there was a question of whether there was something going on with the robot that might be a problem. Few and far between, but it's happened a few times, Waldmann said.

Waldmann says the technology is a great tool for precise surgery, and he's reassured many patients recently who've seen recent complaints.

The best analogy I've been able to come up with when I've tried to explain it to them is: If you're driving a Ferrari, and you drive into a brick wall, is that really the Ferrari's fault, or is that the operator's fault? Waldmann said. This is a tool, and if the surgeon is experienced and they have good judgment and they know what they're doing, the likelihood for an issue or a complication is very small and I would say no greater that with standard surgery.

Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration launched a probe calling for information from hospitals and surgeons using the da Vinci robots to decide if recent reports do indicate a true problem.

Waldmann says he's very interested in seeing the results of that FDA report. But again, he still says the benefits of using the robotic-assisted methods for some surgeries are the best. For example, he says in some cases there can be less blood loss and a shorter hospital stay.

To read and watch the CNBC report referenced in this story, click here.


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