The March 26 Boston Globe reports that Massachusetts quality officials have sent an advisory to the state’s hospitals, warning them about rising complications from robot-assisted surgery. “It appears that doctors have used the aggressively marketed robots to perform hysterectomies and colorectal operations that were too complex for the technology, or for the surgeon’s skill level in directing the robots’ actions.” The Globe reports hospitals have advertised the robots on their websites and even at shopping malls and on highway billboards—leading patients to seek out the procedure.

At a cost of $1.5 million to $1.75M, per unit, “hospitals must attract many patients to reap a return on their investment… procedures nationwide rose from 25,000 in 2005 to 360,000 in 2011.” A director of perioperative services at Massachusetts General Hospital commented: “The marketing is not based on any data… this tool was brought to us [by the manufacturer] solely as a marketing device. The medical community didn’t do what it should have done—say, ‘wait a minute, hold on’”.

Conflict of interest policies have been adopted at major medical centers, including those in Massachusetts, to curtail these kinds of marketing influences and protect patients—the large scale adoption of robotic surgery before its safety and effectiveness has been established is the latest wake-up call to evaluate these policies and look at how well they are being implemented and enforced.

— Marcia Hams, Director of Prescription Access and Quality