Intuitive Surgical, Inc, the manufacturer of the da Vinci robotic surgical arm, is being sued after a patient sustained injuries during a surgery performed in 2007 when part of the da Vinci robotic arm broke off inside the patient. Surgeons were unable to remove the broken piece from the original incision, in the patient’s rear end, and had to make a larger incision at the site to extract the piece. In similar cases, other injuries reported from the use of the da Vinci machine have included rectal damage during prostate surgery, perforations of the liver and spleen during heart surgery, and unforeseen burns from the cauterizing tools as well as vaginal hernias resulting from the use of the machine during hysterectomy.

The mounting list of injuries that patients are receiving seems to be enough evidence to show that the risks may outweigh the benefits in using robotic machinery to perform surgery. A recent study by Columbia University revealed that there is no significant advantage to using robotic machines over live surgeons in surgical procedures. The study uncovered that robotic surgical procedures were slightly more expensive and that complications occurred at the same rate as conventional surgery. In addition, shorter recovery times from robotic surgeries jumped a mere 5% over recovery times from conventional surgeries.

During robotic surgery that involves the use of the $1.7 million machinery, a surgeon sits at a console and inserts a small camera into the patient. The surgeon controls the machine’s robotic arms by following the 3-D images displayed on a screen from the small camera. Supporters claim that the use of the machine decreases scarring, minimizes blood loss, and allows patients to enjoy shorter recovery times. Supporters also claim that the incidents where injury occurred from the use of the da Vinci were human error rather than a defect in the machine.

“Studies show there is a learning curve with new surgical technologies, during which there is an increased complication rate,” said James Breeden of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. New Scientist reveals that on average, doctors get less than two days of training on the da Vinci before they are allowed to operate the machinery during surgery. However, the Journal of the American Medical Association reports that doctors need to clock in more than 250 hours of training time to become proficient with the machine.

Krysta Loera is a writer and researcher with Ring of Fire.