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UCLA study finds that benefits of robotic surgery outweigh costs

Erik Dutson, a general surgeon at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, said he thinks robots reduce complications in surgery and make up for cost. (MacKenzie Coffman/Assistant Photo editor)

By Elyssa Smith and Phoebe Chen

Feb. 22, 2019 12:09 a.m.

Robotic surgery is expensive but its long-term health benefits might pay off in the long run.

Chris Childers, a general surgery resident at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, analyzed financial statements of Intuitive Surgical, a leading surgery robot manufacturer, to evaluate how cost-effective robotic surgery is.

He published the results in a study in August showing robotic surgery is more expensive than nonrobot-assisted surgery. Intuitive Surgical released its 2018 financial data two weeks ago, which the study has recently taken into consideration.

Typically surgical robots cost around $2 million, Childers said. Instruments and accessories used in robotic surgery cost $866 more per procedure than nonrobotic procedures, according to the study.

Melinda Maggard Gibbons, a general surgeon who worked on the study, said purchasing and replacing disposable instruments such as scissors for individual robots also incurs an additional cost.

Childers said robotic surgery is expensive because instruments have to be constantly repurchased.

“You buy a robot (and you) have to buy a $2,000 contract with the company every year,” Childers said. “It costs almost $3,600 per operation.”

Though robotic operations are expensive, Erik Dutson, a general surgeon at the medical center with 18 years of robotic surgery experience, said they can actually save patients money.

“If you have a device that allows you to do a procedure or operation that … results in even one less complication over the course of a year, it basically pays for itself,” he said.

Childers said he believes robotic surgery will not only help reduce complications and costs for patients, but also cut down costs for hospitals.

“Let’s say you perform a robotic operation, the patient is in the hospital for less than a day. That saves money,” Childers said. “You don’t have to pay as much for staff.”

Robotic surgery reduces complications for patients because it is a minimally invasive procedure, said Mark Girgis, another general surgeon with advanced robotic training.

“Patients are able to get their surgery with smaller incisions, (which leads to a) theoretically faster recovery and less pain,” Girgis said.

Girgis said Intuitive Surgical has a monopoly on the surgical robot market right now. However, as technology advances and more companies produce robots, Girgis said he thinks the cost of robotic surgery will decrease.

“How we feel about (robotic surgery) now is not going to be the same as how we feel about it 10 years from now when other companies come out with their own robots that compete with the monopoly that (Intuitive Surgical has) right now,” Girgis said.

Childers said he believes robots will become standard in operating rooms in the future.

“Robots are only going to get more prevalent as you go on,” Childers said. “No one is going to just be doing bare, hard surgery 50 years from now.”

Dutson said he thinks robots will one day completely replace human surgeons.

“We’re already working on ways to do automated gestures … medical robotics are going to have an increasing level of autonomy,” Dutson said. “Robots are going to replace everybody in every field that we have right now, and it’s going to be driven by artificial intelligence more than anything.”

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