Robot Doctor Concerns: An Allegory for Issues in American Healthcare

Whenever I tell someone that I want to be a surgeon, I often get a response along the lines of “by time you’re a doctor, robots will be doing all of the work.” We all envision a future of telemedicine and doctors replacing robots. We have read stories about people all over the world getting operated on by robots, controlled by a doctor thousands of miles away. But what happens when these surgeries go wrong? Since 2000, only 245 complications, 71 of which were deaths, were reported to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. However, a study from Johns Hopkins University reveals this number does not do justice to the many complications that go unreported.

This study focused on several instances in the media where incidents were not reported to the FDA until after they were exposed by the press or legal action was taken by the affected patient. The report concludes that it is not the technology, called the da Vinci system, which is unsafe, but that the majority of the complications arise from improper use. For example, a surgeon can accidentally cut through the aorta because he or she can not feel its firmness. Such cases should, according to the researchers, be filed under device-related error instead of that of the surgeon. This would allow better tracking and future training to make sure this fast- growing technology becomes increasingly efficient.

Good data is also necessary for the patient. Today, the surgeon can say the risk of robotic surgery is little to none because there is no evidence. There have been 2,585 da Vinci Systems installed in approximately 2,025 hospitals worldwide as of last year, as per the company website. Dr. Martin A Makary, the leading John Hopkins researcher of the issue states that this expansion has neglected proper monitoring.

“This whole issue is symbolic of a larger problem in American health care, which is the lack of proper evaluation of what we do,” Dr. Makary said. “We adopt expensive new technologies, but we don’t even know what we’re getting for our money — if it’s of good value or harmful.”

With the ongoing struggle with legislation agreeing on healthcare in America, this issue can serve as an allegory for the conflict between big companies and a push for innovation without the correct checks and balances in place.

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