March 14, 2013
Washington, DC -- Many women today are hearing about the claimed advantages of robotic surgery for hysterectomy, thanks to widespread marketing and advertising. Robotic surgery is not the only or the best minimally invasive approach for hysterectomy. Nor is it the most cost-efficient. It is important to separate the marketing hype from the reality when considering the best surgical approach for hysterectomies.
The outcome of any surgery is directly associated with the surgeon’s skill. Highly skilled surgeons attain expertise through years of training and experience. Studies show there is a learning curve with new surgical technologies, during which there is an increased complication rate. Expertise with robotic hysterectomy is limited and varies widely among both hospitals and surgeons. While there may be some advantages to the use of robotics in complex hysterectomies, especially for cancer operations that require extensive surgery and removal of lymph nodes, studies have shown that adding this expensive technology for routine surgical care does not improve patient outcomes. Consequently, there is no good data proving that robotic hysterectomy is even as good as—let alone better—than existing, and far less costly, minimally invasive alternatives.
Vaginal hysterectomy, performed through a small opening at the top of the vagina without any abdominal incisions, is the least invasive and least expensive option. Based on its well-documented advantages and low complication rates, this is the procedure of choice whenever technically feasible. When this approach is not possible, laparoscopic hysterectomy is the second least invasive and costly option for patients.
Robotic hysterectomy generally provides women with a shorter hospitalization, less discomfort, and a faster return to full recovery compared with the traditional total abdominal hysterectomy (TAH) which requires a large incision. However, both vaginal and laparoscopic approaches also require fewer days of hospitalization and a far shorter recovery than TAH. These two established methods also have proven track records for outstanding patient outcomes and cost efficiencies.
At a time when there is a demand for more fiscal responsibility and transparency in health care, the use of expensive medical technology should be questioned when less-costly alternatives provide equal or better patient outcomes. Hysterectomy is one of the most common major surgeries in the US and costs our health care system more than $5 billion a year.
At a price of more than $1.7 million per robot, $125,000 in annual maintenance costs, and up to $2,000 per surgery for the cost of single-use instruments, robotic surgery is the most expensive approach. A recent Journal of the American Medical Association study found that the percentage of hysterectomies performed robotically has jumped from less than 0.5% to nearly 10% over the past three years. A study of over 264,000 hysterectomy patients in 441 hospitals also found that robotics added an average of $2,000 per procedure without any demonstrable benefit.
If most women undergoing hysterectomy for benign conditions each year chose a vaginal or laparoscopic procedure—rather than TAH or robotic hysterectomy—performed by skilled and experienced surgeons, pain and recovery times would be reduced while providing dramatic savings to our health care system. Conversely, an estimated $960 million to $1.9 billion will be added to the health care system if robotic surgery is used for all hysterectomies each year.
Aggressive direct-to-consumer marketing of the latest medical technologies may mislead the public into believing that they are the best choice. Our patients deserve and need factual information about all of their treatment options, including costs, so that they can make truly informed health care decisions. Patients should be advised that robotic hysterectomy is best used for unusual and complex clinical conditions in which improved outcomes over standard minimally invasive approaches have been demonstrated.