I've been involved in a protracted and good-natured (I hope) debate about the merits of robotic surgery with a University of Pittsburgh urologist named Ben Davies. Not long ago, he tweeted the following (with translation for the Twitter averse):

“I would love for a $ISRG [stock symbol for Intuitive, makers of the robot] MD hater (like @Skepticscalpel) to actually watch 10 open RRPs [radical retropubic prostatectomies] then watch a 10 robotic RRP. Call me with results”

Dr. Davies is a rabid proponent of robotic prostatectomy and by his own admission, is pretty good at it.

I will admit that robotic surgery may indeed be better than open or standard laparoscopic prostatectomy. There is a lot of level 3 evidence to suggest that.

However, a PubMed search fails to reveal any randomized trials of robotic vs. open or laparoscopic prostatectomy. All research on this subject has been retrospective with the potential flaws associated with that type of study, selection bias, unknown confounding variables, unblinded authors, etc.

In Australia, randomized study of sorts is in progress comparing 200 robotic prostatectomies done by a single surgeon to 200 open prostatectomies done by a different surgeon. A search of ClinicalTrials.gov yields only one other prospective trial in progress. It is a “medico-economic” one from France. There is a trial about whether or not a drain should be used in robotic prostatectomy which assumes that the issue of whether robotic is better than open or standard laparoscopic is settled.

Dr. Davies has a rather narrow view. Although in his field robotic surgery may prove to be better, there is not even anecdotal evidence that it results in improved outcomes for any other type of surgery. Two major gynecologic organizations have recently issued position papers stating that robotic hysterectomy is not indicated for benign disease.

A number of unusual and often devastating complications of robotic surgery are surfacing, which has prompted one state, Massachusetts, to issue an advisory to hospitals.

Defenders of the robot say it's not the technology itself but rather the surgeons who are at fault. To be fair, last week Intuitive won the first lawsuit against it by a plaintiff who accused the company of negligently training a surgeon who had a bad complication.

However, the well-documented intense marketing of the robot by its manufacturer and by hospitals attempting to gain market share is pushing surgeons to adopt the method to stay competitive. The amount of training provided may be prove inadequate and the learning curve for most procedures is unknown but presumed to be long.

Still, we have a decidedly more expensive technology which even in its possibly most likely area of success, radical prostatectomy, has never been proven more effective in a well-designed prospective study.

Skeptical Scalpel is a recently retired surgeon and was a surgical department chairman and residency program director for many years. He is board-certified in general surgery and a surgical sub-specialty and has re-certified in both several times. For the last two years, he has been blogging at SkepticalScalpel.blogspot.com and tweeting as @SkepticScalpel. His blog averages over 900 page views per day, and he has over 5800 followers on Twitter.