Robotic surgeons. The two words may sound like something out of a futuristic sci-fi flick, but they’re real and actually in fairly common use. The leading name in surgical robots is da Vinci, a pricey piece of tech worth $1.5 million that was used in as many as 367,000 procedures in the United States last year alone.

These multi-armed da Vinci robots are like the hottest thing in surgery. Unfortunately, they may not be failproof.

There has been an increase in the number of issues reported with the robots — including five deaths that were linked to them — and that is making the FDA take a closer look at the technology. In one case, a lady died because the device nicked a blood vessel during an operation.

The high-tech tools are operated by doctors, so the human factor is still part of the equation. That makes it tough to determine whether it was human error or some sort of technical bug. But there’s also this to consider: The robots have been known to exhibit strange behavior on occasion — like holding onto tissue instead of releasing it, or smacking a patient in the face while she lay on the table. This leads some experts to wonder if the excitement and rush to adopt this technology sped it through the evaluation process too quickly.


The tech’s popularity did soar, especially over the past four years. During that time, use of the robots tripled in the U.S., where they also appear in magazine ads, billboards and other marketing. 

Robotic surgeries are similar to laparoscopic procedures, in which small cuts allow tiny cameras and smaller instruments to enter the body. (Such procedures are highly preferred over invasive operations that require much larger incisions.) The difference is, instead of human hands performing the surgery, the tools are wielded by the da Vincis while surgeons control them using a computer screen. This is far better for the surgeon, since it’s less exhausting than hunching over the patient in the operating room. Plus, robotic hands never get the shakes.

For all these reasons, patient outcomes can sometimes be far better. Some have experienced less bleeding and earlier discharges from hospitals, which benefit both patient and providers. The da Vincis have been adopted for use in all sorts of procedures now — from removing prostates and gallbladders to repairing heart valves, shrinking stomachs and even transplanting organs.

According to Intuitive Surgical, da Vinci’s maker, the system “has an excellent safety record with over 1.5 million surgeries performed globally, and total adverse event rates have remained low and in line with historical trends.”

Hopefully those numbers will hold up. The robots are currently used in almost 1,400 U.S. hospitals nationwide, which amounts to about one out of four. That’s an awful lot of potential technical failures to ponder. And a lot of lives at stake.