Robot surgeons kill 144 patients, hurt 1,391, malfunction 8,061 times

Taking Blue Screen of Death to another level

'Dr Careful Hands is ready to see you now, Sarah'

Surgery on humans using robots has been touted by some as a safer way to get your innards repaired – and now the figures are in for you to judge.

A team of university eggheads have counted up the number of medical cockups in America reported to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from 2000 to 2013, and found there were 144 deaths during robot-assisted surgery, 1,391 injuries, and 8,061 counts of device malfunctions.

If that sounds terrible, consider that 1.7 million robo-operations were carried out between 2007 and 2013. Whether you're impressed or appalled, the number of errors has the experts mildly concerned, and they want better safety mechanisms.

"Despite widespread adoption of robotic systems for minimally invasive surgery, a non-negligible number of technical difficulties and complications are still being experienced during procedures," concludes the study [PDF], which was conducted by bods from MIT, Rush University Medical Center, and the University of Illinois.

Two deaths and 52 injuries were caused when the mechanical surgeon spontaneously powered down mid operation or made an incorrect movement. In another 10.5 per cent of recorded malfunctions, electrical sparks burned patients, resulting in 193 injuries.

A major problem, surprisingly, was that one death and 119 injuries were caused by pieces of the robot falling off into the patient, requiring a human surgical team to intervene and retrieve the broken hardware. 18 injuries were caused when the video systems on the human surgeon's console borked out mid-surgery.

The most dangerous kind of robot surgery is cardiothoracic and head and neck surgeries (6.4 per cent and 19.7 per cent of adverse results respectively), compared to 1.4 per cent and 1.9 per cent for gynecology and urology operations.

"The best that we can tell from the available data is that the higher number of injury, death, and conversion per adverse event in cardiothoracic and head and neck surgeries could be indirectly explained by the higher complexity of the procedures, less frequent use of robotic devices, and less robotic expertise in these fields," the study found.

"Although the use of robotic technology has rapidly grown in urology and gynecology for prostatectomy and hysterectomy, it has been slow to percolate into more complex areas, such as cardiothoracic and head and neck surgery."

Sadly the reports on precise causes are incomplete and the vast majority of deaths and injuries are simply listed as "malfunction," which could mean either the mechanical surgery unit failed or the operator cocked up, coauthor Dr Ramen told El Reg.

While the study shows there has been a vast increase in the number of robot operations in the time period studied, the chance of an accident happening has remained relatively constant, suggesting there are some fundamental problems to be fixed.

"Despite widespread adoption of robotic systems for minimally invasive surgery, a non-negligible number of technical difficulties and complications are still being experienced during procedures," the study concludes.

"Adoption of advanced techniques in design and operation of robotic surgical systems may reduce these preventable incidents in the future." ®


It's tricky to compare these robo-op figures to the error rate of pure-human surgeries for various dull reasons; one being that when mistakes are made, they're often settled out of court and are never admitted. With a machine involved, someone can blame the hardware. Between two and four per cent of operations in the US suffer from complications, according to one study, although that doesn't mean someone died in every case that went wrong.

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