Robotic Surgery Involved in 144 Deaths in 14 Years

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By Keith Wagstaff

Robotic surgery is on the rise as doctors look to make procedures less invasive, but according to a new study, the strategy comes with risks.

Looking at more than 10,000 incident reports from the FDA spanning from 2000 to 2013, researchers found that robots were involved in 144 patient deaths and 1,391 patient injuries.

For most of the reports involving death, very little information was shared on why the patient died -- meaning it's difficult to say whether it was human error, a problem with the robot, or the risks inherent in surgery.

Still, the study's authors -- from MIT, Rush University Medical Center, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign -- found cause for alarm.

"Despite widespread adoption of robotic systems for minimally invasive surgery, a non-negligible number of technical difficulties and complications are still being experienced during procedures," the study said.

Some of the errors included burnt or broken pieces of tools falling into the patient (14.7 percent), electrical sparking (10.5 percent) and robots making unintended movements (8.6 percent) -- the last of which resulted in 52 injuries and two deaths.

And while robots did well during gynecology and urology procedures, there were more errors reported in complicated cardiothoracic and head and neck surgeries.

Overall, the study found 550 error reports per 100,000 surgical procedures involving robots, most of them not resulting in death or injury.