Rising Health Care Costs & Robotic Surgery

I got something in my e-mail this morning. It’s a press release aimed at helping with prostate cancer awareness month, and is supported by Lance Armstrong’s foundation.


SUNNYVALE, CALIF.,– September 9, 2009 – Prostate cancer remains one of the most commonly diagnosed cancers in the United States. In fact, one in six men will develop prostate cancer. It is also the second-leading cause of cancer death in the United States. But a recent survey suggests that many men at risk for the cancer still aren’t aware of all available treatment options. The survey, conducted late last year, reveals that nearly 50% of men aged 40 and older are not aware of the most common approach to surgery for prostate cancer — robotic-assisted surgery to remove the prostate. “I had to do my own research and then self-admit myself to the [hospital],” says surgery patient Tim Propheter. “…. Most people are just told … ‘Sorry, you have to have surgery, and we’ll set you up for such and such day,’ and they don’t know any better until they run into someone like me,” he says. This lack of information persists despite the fact that prostate cancer treatment has changed dramatically in the last decade. For example, surgery — which remains the gold standard treatment for localized prostate cancer — has become much less invasive. According to the American Urologic Association, the major benefit of prostatectomy, or prostate removal, is a potential “cancer cure” in patients with localized or early stage cancer.

Guess who the press release was from? Guess who sponsored the survey? The following was at the bottom of the email:

About the survey

Data was collected from 1000 self-selected adult healthcare information seekers through an online panel available through Ztelligence.com, using an survey questionnaire. Fifty-four percent of those were male and 46 percent were female. The results reflect only the opinions of the healthcare seekers who chose to participate.

About Intuitive Surgical, Inc.

The survey was conducted by Intuitive Surgical, Inc. (NASDAQ: ISRG), the manufacturer of the da Vinci Surgical System, the world’s only commercially available system designed to allow physicians to provide a minimally invasive option for complex surgeries. Intuitive Surgical, headquartered in Sunnyvale, California, is the global technology leader in robotic-assisted, minimally invasive surgery (MIS). Intuitive Surgical develops, manufactures and markets robotic technologies designed to improve clinical outcomes and help patients return more quickly to active and productive lives. The company’s mission is to extend the benefits of minimally invasive surgery to the broadest possible base of patients. Intuitive Surgical — Taking surgery beyond the limits of the human hand.™

Imagine that. A survey done by company that sells the da Vinci robotic surgical equipment shows that men have tragically no knowledge of the da Vinci robotic prostate surgery!

So let’s see what the evidence shows:

  • Prostate cancer occurs in 186,000 men each year and kills nearly 29,000.
  • In a well-known autopsy survey, over 1/3 of men over 80 were found to have cancer present in their prostate without evidence of significant disease.  It is not clear how many of these men will progress to overt cancer, but it is very clear that this is the vast minority.
  • PSA Testing (the blood test for prostate cancer screening) is by far the largest source of surgical candidates.  It is a controversial test, having a high rate of false positives and an unproven record of significant benefit.

From the reference uptodate.com:

The European Randomized Study of Screening for Prostate Cancer (ERSPC) reported a small absolute survival benefit with PSA screening after nine years of follow-up; however, 48 additional patients would need aggressive treatment to prevent one prostate cancer death. Although the report did not address quality of life outcomes, considerable data show the potential harms from aggressive treatments. Further sustaining the uncertainty surrounding screening, a report from the large United States trial, the Prostate, Lung, Colorectal, and Ovarian (PLCO) Cancer Screening Trial, published concurrently with the European trial, found no benefit for annual PSA and digital rectal examination (DRE) screening after seven to ten years of follow-up. The crux of this screening dilemma was aptly stated by the urologist Willet Whitmore, who asked “is cure possible in those for whom it is necessary, and is cure necessary in those for whom it is possible?”

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