Don’t Get Terminated by Robotic Surgery

Scartelli Olszewski P.C.

Many of us have seen films or television shows in which intelligent robots rebel against their human creators, turning what was had been a great technological achievement into an existential threat to humanity. In 2015, these scenarios no longer belong entirely in the realm of science fiction; luminaries such as Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have famously warned of the possible dangers of developing artificial intelligence. They may not be carrying firearms and hunting us through the streets, but robots already are becoming a major part of our lives. Millions of households use inexpensive robots to vacuum their houses, and within the next few years, robots that care for our gardens, help us monitor vulnerable loved ones, and even carry heavy loads will start to become commonplace. Robots already have become commonplace in healthcare. Consider that between 2007 and 2013, robots assisted with more than 1.7 million surgical procedures in the United States. For the most part, doctors and engineers have developed these robotic surgical procedures to make them less invasive for patients’ bodies. Rather than slice someone open to provide access for a surgeon’s hands, tiny surgical robots can enter a patient’s body through a small incision or existing orifice, maneuver to the spot where surgical intervention is required, and then perform the procedure via remote control. It sure sounds safer than traditional surgery. But is it? That’s what a team of researchers from the University of Illinois, MIT, and Rush University Medical Center in Chicago set out to determine. In a study published earlier this year, the researchers found that “a non-negligible number of technical difficulties and complications are still being experienced” during robotically enhanced surgery. While studying 10,624 adverse events reported during robotic surgery between January 2000 and December 2013, the study’s authors found more than 8,000 instances in which devices had malfunctioned at some point during a surgical procedure. In some cases, the computer system that controlled the robot merely needed to be restarted, but this still had the effect of keeping the patient on the operating table longer than they would have been otherwise. Other malfunctions ranged from video glitches that prevented the medical team from seeing what they were doing to 1,557 instances where broken or burnt (!) pieces of the surgical robots themselves fell off and remained in the patients’ bodies. Of those latter patients, 119 injuries were reported. One patient died. Other problems included “electrical arcing of instruments” (193 injuries) and “unintended operation of instruments” (52 injuries, two deaths).Out of the 8,061 incidents categorized as a “malfunction,” 444 injuries and nine deaths were reported. The robots had a better track record in surgical specialty procedures, such as urology and gynecology, than they did with cardiothoracic or head & neck procedures. What does this all mean? There is no such thing as risk-free surgery, of course, and the odds of a robotic malfunction causing injury or death during your surgery might sound pretty low: Roughly 1 in 2,000, if the trends shown by the study hold. The bottom line, however, is that we are still at the dawn of this technology. A century from now, medicine may look back on the crude robotic devices of our time with gruesome fascination, the same way we now look at 18th century depictions of experimental (and usually fatal) early surgical procedures. In the meantime, we are all guinea pigs in the laboratory of robotic surgery. If your time in that laboratory has left you feeling more like a specimen than a patient, we’d like to hear your story. If you or a loved one suffered an injury as the result of robotic surgery, call the Scranton and Wilkes-Barre medical malpractice attorneys at Scartelli Olszewski at (877) 353-0529.