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Robotic Hip Surgery Purports to be Safer, Some Evidence Suggests Otherwise

In Minnesota, a local news article touted a new robotic surgery for total hip replacements at a nearby hospital. The article noted surgeons were relying less on the imperfect human eye and fallible human hand and instead leaning on the precision of robots. monitor

The latest investment for the local surgical center costs millions of dollars. It’s an arm-assisted system, and promises to “take the guesswork” out of placement of hip replacement implants, allowing patients to receive fits that are customized. It’s one of two surgical centers in that state to use the robotic arm system, which was manufactured by Stryker – the same company at the center of hip replacement and knee replacement litigation for defective products.

Approximately 400 to 550 hip replacements are done at this surgical center alone each year. The hope is to reduce the number of additional surgeries sometimes needed to correct improper placement of hip replacements, which is largely attributed to “eyeballing techniques” used by surgeons to get the parts in the right place.

But while it may be true these devices help improve the process in most cases, they aren’t without risk. When complications arise, the validity of an injury lawsuit will depend on a number of factors. If, for example, the injury stemmed from a surgeon’s improper use of the device, the case would likely be filed as a medical malpractice lawsuit. On the other hand, if it was the machine itself that failed, it would be considered a product liability case. Each have different proof burdens, notice requirements and statutes of limitations. The question of which type of case you have isn’t always easily answered, so it’s best to have an experienced, resourceful injury law firm on your side as early as possible in the process.

Massachusetts health officials in 2013 warned of an increasing number of complications in robot-assisted surgery. An advisory was sent to local hospitals noting that surgeons were using these devices (which have been heavily-marketed to those in the medical field) to perform colorectal surgeries and hysterectomies – both procedures that were either too complex for the kind of technology the robots employ or for the doctor’s level of skill in directing the actions of the robots.

In one case, for example, two doctors didn’t adequately coordinate their movements of the remote-controlled devices while dually performing a hysterectomy on a woman. The result was extensive damage to her bowel and excessive internal bleeding.

Another patient suffered shoulder injuries after she remained under anesthesia for hours in a steep, head-down position (standard for robotic surgeries).

Surgeons say it allows them to move in more directions than the human wrist and eliminate any potential damage resulting from small tremors of the hand. Plus, images on a screen are magnified many times over, which means surgeons have a better view of the patient’s anatomy. Additionally, robotic surgeries are supposed to be less invasive.

Among the Massachusetts hospitals that use the devices: Brigham and Women’s Hospital, St. Luke’s Hospital in New Bedford and Beth Israel Deaconness Hospital Milton. There are many more, and a number of them have in turn heavily marketed the robotic procedures to the public, often to make them appear on the cutting edge of medical technology. But it seems in some cases, old-fashioned hands-on surgery may in fact be far safer.

A study conducted by Brigham six years ago revealed patients with cancer who underwent robotic surgery to remove their prostates were twice as likely to experience complications such as impotence and incontinence 18 months after surery than patients who underwent traditional surgery.

State health officials say they can’t require hospitals to change their policy on this, but that health care providers should be aware of the potential risks.

If you are the victim of Massachusetts product liability, call the Law Offices of Jeffrey S. Glassman for a free and confidential appointment — 1-888-367-2900.

Additional Resources:

Mass. cautions hospitals about robotic surgery, March 26, 2013, By Liz Kowalczyk, The Boston Globe

More Blog Entries:

New Procedure for Double Hip Replacement, June 17, 2015, Boston Hip Replacement Injury Lawyer