NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Robot Surgeons

March 18, 2004

New medical technologies can improve outcomes for patients, but they come with a price tag. However, by reducing complications and recovery times, sometimes even expensive technology can pay its own way.

For example, a $1.2 million surgical robot has proven to be less invasive and more precise for delicate operations. Dr. W. Randolph Chitwood of East Carolina University has used the robot for 130 mitral heart valve repairs, and the results have been promising:

  • Of over 125 procedures, only two patients died, but as a result of other complications occurring months later.
  • The robot-assisted surgery does require more medical staff during the procedure, but post-operative hospital costs are lower due to shorter recovery times.
  • As a result, East Carolina University makes a small profit by using the robot because Medicare reimburses hospitals a flat $25,000 fee for heart valve repairs whether or not robotics are used.

More patients are demanding robots for surgeries that warrant it. The use of the robot in prostate surgeries has been favorable as well, but in 2003 only 3.4 percent of surgeries were robotic.

Regulators approved the four-armed robot, known as the da Vinci surgical system, which has been on the market since 2000, but only 200 of the machines have been sold world-wide.

Source: Bernard Wysocki, Jr., "Robots in the OR," Wall Street Journal, February 26, 2004.


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