What to Know About Your Robot Surgeon

Bridge toll collectors, cashiers, some fast-food employees, and even an entire hotel staff...

These are just a few jobs that robots and automation have taken over. But some folks would have you believe the next job to disappear will be your surgeon's.

The latest in the "dangers of robots" fad is a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warning about using surgical robots for cancer surgery. According to the warning from the FDA, patients should beware the use of robots for certain surgeries, such as those related to breast and cervical cancers. The FDA says there is some evidence that robot-assisted surgeries might reduce long-term survival.

This isn't the first time we've seen these sorts of warnings...

A late 2018 investigative report from NBC news tried to scare folks off of surgical robots. The robot, called the da Vinci Surgical System, has cropped up in hospitals across the country. The report cited patients who reported injuries and burns after a robotic surgery.

It's a lot of overblown hype.

Robotic systems like da Vinci are becoming more prevalent everywhere. In fact, in 2017, the robot assisted with roughly 700,000 surgeries, with patients recovering faster and with fewer problems than traditional "open" surgeries that use larger incisions.

In fact, a paper in late 2017 from Surgical Endoscopy looked at outcomes based on surgical type. Folks who had a robotic surgery had much lower rates of needing to return to the hospital compared with those who had open surgeries.

Robots are still used in more than 80% of prostate surgeries. The FDA warning only covers certain types of cancer surgery, but that's it. The mainstream media would have you believe it's all types of surgeries.

Like any surgical procedure, there are risks. But overall, robotic surgeries allow patients to go home sooner and provide faster recovery times.

Some of these risks are specific to robotic units, but keep in mind that regular surgery also carries risks. The point is, it's important to educate yourself beforehand...

What drives me crazy is how so many folks neglect the basics before going into surgery. Since the robot functions for minimally invasive procedures, typically you have more time to plan for these. That includes routine outpatient surgeries like gallbladder removals or hernia repairs.

That means you have plenty of time to find a doctor who's well-trained in minimally invasive procedures.

In fact, it brings me to an excellent point... Many of the reported injuries and issues with robotic surgery come from surgeons without proper training or experience. Even the latest warning from the FDA backs that up – make sure you find the best doctor who will use the absolute best surgical procedure for you no matter what.

If you have time to choose your surgeon, make sure you ask the following:

  • His personal success rate with the procedure
  • The infection rate he's experienced
  • The complication rate he's seen

If he can't give you those numbers, run out of that office and find a better doctor ASAP.

We also recommend checking out your surgeon's license status and any disciplinary actions. You can find this on sites like DocInfo.org.

And make sure you follow up on finding the best hospital as well.

If you need to choose a hospital for any kind of surgery or procedure, don't trust the masses. According to a study in the journal Health Services Research last year, you can't trust ratings on popular sites like Facebook, Yelp, or Google.

The problem is that people review these places like they would restaurants. They neglect to show you the important stuff – like infection rates, safety ratings, and more.

Worse, this report showed that 20% of hospitals getting the best "crowdsourced" ratings actually had the lowest scores from Medicare's Hospital Compare. This system looks at things like infection rates, timeliness of care, and safety procedures. It accounts for about 57 different measures – far more than your average Joe on Facebook would consider.

So don't blindly follow personal recommendations. Do your own research. We recommend using U.S. News & World Report for its hospital rating system. We've also recommended the Hospital Compare system, which you can find here. And be sure to check with your insurance provider to make sure the hospital is in-network to avoid sky-high fees.

My take-away is simple: Do what I do and shop around for not just the best rates on health care, but the best doctors as well. As long as it isn't an emergency, take the time to do your research first.

What We're Reading...

Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
March 14, 2019