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April 9, 2013

Robot hot among surgeons but FDA taking a new look

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A robotic arm that wouldn't let go of tissue grasped during colorectal surgery on Jan. 14. "We had to do a total system shutdown to get the grasper to open its jaws," said the report filed by the hospital. The report said the patient was not injured.

A robotic arm hit a patient in the face during a hysterectomy. The company filed that report, and said it is unknown if the patient was injured but that the surgeon decided to switch to an open, more invasive operation instead.

Intuitive Surgical filed all but one of those reports.

Complications can occur with any type of surgery, and so far it's unclear if they are more common in robotic operations, but that's part of what the FDA is trying to find out.

Intuitive Surgical disputes there's been a true increase in problems and says the rise reflects a change it made last year in the way it reports problems.

The da Vinci system "has an excellent safety record with over 1.5 million surgeries performed globally, and total adverse event rates have remained low and in line with historical trends," said company spokeswoman Angela Wonson.

But an upcoming research paper suggests that problems linked with robotic surgery are underreported. They include cases with "catastrophic complications," said Dr. Martin Makary, a Johns Hopkins surgeon who co-authored the paper.

"The rapid adoption of robotic surgery ... has been done by and large without the proper evaluation," Makary said.

The da Vinci system, on the market since 2000, includes a three- or four-armed robot that surgeons operate with hand controls at a computer system located several feet away from the patient. They see inside the patient's body through a tiny video camera attached to one of the long robot arms. The other arms are tipped with tiny surgical instruments.

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