Robotic operations are similar to conventional laparoscopy, or "keyhole" surgery, which involves small incisions and camera-tipped instruments controlled by the surgeon's hands, not a robot.
Almost 1,400 U.S. hospitals — nearly 1 out of 4 — have at least one da Vinci system. Each one costs about $1.45 million, plus $100,000 or more a year in service agreements.
The most common robotic operations include prostate removal — about 85 percent of these operations in the U.S. are done with the robot. Da Vinci also is often used for hysterectomies, Wonson said.
Makary says there's no justification for the skyrocketing increase in robotic surgery, which he attributes to aggressive advertising by the manufacturer and hospitals seeking more patients.
He led a study published in 2011 that found 4 in 10 U.S. hospitals promoted robotic surgery on their websites, often using wording provided by the manufacturer. Some of the claims exaggerated the benefits or had misleading, unproven claims, the study said.
Stifelman, the Langone surgeon, said it makes sense for hospitals to promote robotic surgery and other new technology to, but that it doesn't mean that it's the right option for all patients.
"It's going to be the responsibility of the surgeon ... to make sure the patient knows there are lots of options," and to discuss the risks and benefits, he said.
His hospital expects to do more than 1,200 robotic surgeries this year, versus just 175 in 2008.
For a few select procedures that require operating in small, hard-to-reach areas, robotic surgery may offer advantages over conventional methods, Makary said. Those procedures include head and neck cancer surgery and rectal surgery.
Some surgeons say the robotic method also has advantages for weight-loss surgery on extremely obese patients, whose girth can make hands-on surgery challenging.
"At the console, the operation can be performed effectively and precisely, translating to superior quality," said Dr. Subhashini Ayloo, a surgeon at the University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System in Chicago.