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Robot-Assisted Surgery Has Poorer Outcomes And Is More Expensive – But Because It’s Cool, We’ll Use It Anyway?

Yesterday in our cath conference, we discussed the substudy from the prospective randomized trial called PREVENT-IV just published in the New England Journal of Medicine. That study evaluated the major adverse cardiac event rates of minimally invasive vein harvesting compared to open vein harvesting prior to coronary bypass surgery.

I was surprised to see that minimally-invasive vein harvesting had a higher combined complication rate of death, myocardial infarction (heart attack) and need for revascularization in the patients who received vein grafts harvested by the minimally-invasive technique. Following the presentation of the data, our surgeons were asked why this might be the case. While none knew for sure, they postulated that the art of harvesting vein-conduits using endovascular techniques might play a role (it’s more difficult), or the effects of the thrombolytic state induced by on-pump bypass vs. off-pump bypass might create the discrepency in post-surgery vein survival, since patients are less likely to develop clinical thromboses in the post-open chest bypass population.

So this morning, I was surprised that President Obama toured Cleveland Clinic yesterday and had such an up-front experience with minimally-invasive robotic surgical techniques for mitral valve repair that hardly represents mainstream American health care. While the marvels of the technology cannot be disputed, like the endovascular vein harvesting study above, might we find that robotics could be as deleterious to patients compared to open chest techniques? After all, these techniques have yet to be compared in multi-center trials to more conventional open techniques for mitral valve repair. But more concerning as we move forward is this question: will academic centers be granted more funds to test comparative effectiveness research for robotics at the expense of front-line American health care? Surely, this won’t be, will it?


But when I see pieces like this I wonder why the article does not question the cost and risks of this technique compared to conventional open-chest procedures, especially in this era of touting the need for health care cost containment. How much is this piece about the marketing of this technique to the community (for financial gain) or to the President (for obtaining grants or political favors)?

Perhaps we should ask ourselves how many of the physicians and surgeons at Cleveland Clinic stand to earn a seat on the proposed MEDPAC board that will determine if Congress will approve payment for robotic techniques even when few data exist to show their superiority over conventional techniques.

Now that might make for some really interesting reading.

*This blog post was originally published at Dr. Wes*

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One Response to “Robot-Assisted Surgery Has Poorer Outcomes And Is More Expensive – But Because It’s Cool, We’ll Use It Anyway?”

  1. Marya says:

    We should really start by asking what the value of any of these interventions is.

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