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Robotic surgery: High tech medicine doesn't mean it's safer

The concept of robotic surgery is one that attracts a lot of attention. Most of the time, the information about the wonders of this technology comes from the hospital that is looking to attract patients. Often used to back up the claims is information that comes directly from the manufacturer of the devices.

This is a situation that even the trade group that represents medical malpractice insurance companies says raises possible issues of hyper marketing. That is, claims about the value of the technology are being made, but what is lacking is reliable data to back up the claims. In reaction to such gaping holes around adequate disclosure, the trade group admits medical malpractice claims are bound to follow.

The group, PIAA, says there are two particular areas worth worrying about. But it's not just the doctors and hospitals that need to be aware. Patients deserve to be informed, too, so they can make informed decisions and avoid situations that result in their falling victim to medical care that is clearly negligent. So we feel it's worth addressing here.

The matters that PIAA calls "gray areas" center on training and credentialing and proper informed consent. The problem is that there is no consensus on what is required in either of these areas.

To the question of what it takes for a surgeon to earn proficiency certification, the PIAA points to 2010 article in The Wall Street Journal. It quoted an array of medical professionals who said doctors would need to perform anywhere from 200 to 700 procedures using the robotic surgical devices to be considered proficient. The spread in the numbers apparently depends on the difficulty of a given procedure.

The other matter has to do with adequate informed consent. In an environment of widely diverse opinion, the PIAA seems to suggest the best thing for doctors and hospitals to do is offer full disclosure about the nature of any procedure, the number of times the surgeon has performed such an operation and the reality of unknown risks and benefits. If there is reliable information on outcomes, that should be discussed, too.

Just because something is new doesn't mean it's better. And the only way to protect your rights is to ask questions.

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