Study: Robots boost cost of thyroid surgery without major benefit

The use of surgical robots--particularly one made by Intuitive Surgical ($ISRG)--drastically escalates the cost of thyroid gland removal surgery without generating significant benefit in return, a new study concludes.

That's $5,795 for surgery aided by the company's da Vinci Surgical System robot, Reuters reports, versus $2,668 when two experienced surgeons perform the procedure without a robot aide. For details, check out this week's Archives of Surgery.

As Reuters notes, use of the robot to treat thyroid conditions including cancerous and non-cancerous nodules doesn't have U.S. approval yet. That means use of the robot in those cases would be considered "off-label," but a course of action some surgeons could choose anyway.

That reality means that using robots could add unnecessary costs to the healthcare system, at least for the procedure.  While robotic surgery can reduce the level of scarring, according to the article, lead researcher Dr. James Broome and his colleagues at Vanderbilt University said the finding shows robots don't generate improved outcomes, and so their use for thyroid gland removal becomes suspect. In other words, as hospitals and companies, such as Intuitive, increasingly market the technology, consumers should be wary.

A spokesperson from Intuitive explained to Reuters that the cost of robotic surgery should be evaluated depending on each case, and noted that the thyroid gland removal using robots "is generally a very low volume procedure in the U.S." At the same time, spokesperson Angela Wonson added that the procedure has become particularly useful and popular in markets, such as Korea, because the incision (under the arm) is much less visible compared to the neck incision surgeons typically use.

Intuitive Surgical booked $537 million in revenue during its 2012 second quarter, up a whopping 26% compared to the same period in 2011, as it attracted broader general surgery and gynecological procedure business.

- read more at Reuters
- here's the journal abstract