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Study Finds 'Nonnegligible' Number Of Complications During Robotic Surgery, 144 Deaths Since 2000

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The use of robotic systems for some forms of surgery is still a relatively new area, but they have been in use long enough for researchers from MIT, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Rush University Medical Center in Chicago to put together a set of findings on what they describe as "adverse events in robotic surgery."

As BBC News reports, their key finding is that the machines have been linked to 144 deaths and 1,391 injuries in the United States during the 14-year study period.

That translates to 1.4 percent and 13 percent, respectively, of the cases reported and, as the researchers note, is a relatively small number compared with the total number of robotic surgeries performed - between 2007 and 2013 alone, they note, there were some 1.7 million such procedures performed in the United States, over 1.5 million (86 percent) were performed in gynecology and urology, while the number of procedures in other surgical specialties was less than 250,000 (14 percent).

Still, the researchers say that "a nonnegligible number of technical difficulties and complications are still being experienced during procedures." Those issues, they explain, include things like broken pieces falling into the patient, electrical arcing causing burns, instruments not functioning as intended, and system restarts causing a delay in the surgical procedure.

As with any surgery, those risks can't be eliminated completely, but the researchers suggest that changes in the design and operation of robotic surgical systems "may reduce these preventable incidents in the future." Those improvements, they explain, could include things like "uniform standards for surgical team training, advanced human machine interfaces, improved accident investigation and reporting mechanisms, and safety-based design techniques."

Robotic surgery can reduce the risk of infections and help patients heal more quickly, proponents say. Surgical specialties for which robots are extensively used, such as gynecology and urology, had lower number of injuries, deaths, and conversions per procedure than more complex surgeries, such as cardiothoracic and head and neck (106.3 vs. 232.9) procedures, they note.

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