Surgical robots can malfunction, injure patients in Pittsburgh

In recent years, the use of robotic equipment in surgery has skyrocketed in Pittsburgh and across the country. Manufacturers and many surgeons say that the devices are safe alternatives for patients because they are less tiring for doctors and provide steadier maneuvers than human hands. The maker of the da Vinci, a robotic surgical arm, says that there were 367,000 operations involving a robotic instrument in 2012, more than double the number in 2008. They have become common instruments for use in prostate removal, which is a common operation among older men, and hysterectomies.

But as the number of robot surgeries goes up, the number of surgical errors also rises. The Food and Drug Administration says there has been a jump in surgical injuries suffered due to robot malfunctions. Among the frightening reports is one case where a robot hand grasped part of a patient's body and would not let go. In another incident, a robot arm struck a patient in the face.

The issue is more serious than temporary, easily fixed malfunctions. As of early 2012, there have been at least 500 medical incidents involving robot-related errors, including at least five people have deaths. Besides the incidents mentioned above, the list includes a woman who died during a hysterectomy when a robot arm cut a blood vessel and a man whose colon was punctured during colon surgery.

The FDA is investigating whether these robot devices are safe enough to keep in operating rooms. Lack of training among surgeons could be an issue. One study concluded that doctors need at least 150 procedures under their belts before they could be considered proficient at using a robot system.

Source: Houston Chronicle, "Robot hot among surgeons but FDA taking fresh look," Lindsay Tanner, April 10, 2013

· For information about surgical errors and other forms of medical malpractice, please visit our Pittsburgh medical malpractice page.