Why is robotic surgery so expensive?

30th October 2020
Lanna Deamer

There are plenty of reasons advocates of robotic surgery can point to as justifications for the costs, but regardless of the reasoning, the surgeries are still very expensive. The most popular system used in robot surgery is the da Vinci surgical system, and since its inception, da Vinci systems have performed more than 6 million surgeries.

Guest blog written by Amber Harris, Academic Resources, Circa Interactive

As the system continues to evolve, a wider variety of procedures are possible with robotic surgery, to the point where, in the United States, a robotic assisted surgery is performed every 30 seconds.

Generally, when technologies grow to this level of popularity, the prices start to drastically drop (think cell phones, new vehicle safety features, or other medical technologies). This isn’t proving to be the case with robotic surgery. In addition, the effectiveness and success rates of robotic surgery are not exponentially better than those of regular surgeries, even though the prices are.

Most robotic surgeries cost roughly $5,000 more than their doctor-led counterparts. In most industries, when one item costs $5,000 more than a competitive product, it offers a lot of value and reliability, and just a general feeling that you purchased an item that was exceptional compared to its competitor. The jury is still out with whether or not robotic surgery is worth the cost, and here are some reasons why.

Why is it so expensive?

There are plenty of upsides, many relating to the miniscule appearance of scars and other marks of surgeries that would have otherwise been performed by doctors. The lack of scars also mean faster recoveries, less bleeding, and a lower chance of damaging nerves. These are fair reasons for the surgery to be labeled superior, but not really something that should add to a price tag for a given single procedure.

The reasons the procedures do continue to cost so much are primarily related to the robot costs. In the early 2000s, there were three major competitors in the world of robotic surgery, but in the past decade, just as the technology was really starting to get some hefty funding from the private sector, two of those competitors dissolved, leaving somewhat of a monopoly in the robotic surgery realm, the aforementioned da Vinci Surgical System.

Each of these systems costs $2m, and each system includes a handful of disposal parts that must be replaced with each surgery. In addition, the surgeries do require a highly-trained (expensive) expert to operate the machinery. The da Vinci system is more of a videogame than a robot doctor, as all of the actions are done by a well-qualified human surgeon behind a computer screen.

Though the surgeries are minimally invasive to the human body, they certainly aren’t to the wallet. At the onset of the popularity (the early 2000s), the surgeries did prove to be improvements, but as doctor-performed surgeries have evolved in the last 20 years, improvements to the robotic surgeries have not particularly kept up. A nonprofit organisation called the ECRI institute analyses data on medical procedures and devices, and conducted analysis on more than 4,000 different studies relating to robotic surgery. The analysis determined that “The evidence isn’t strong enough to determine whether or not a robot is better than traditional minimally invasive surgery.”

With that in mind, it’s difficult to point anywhere else other than the lack of competition with the da Vinci system as the primary reason for the procedures being $5,000 more expensive.

Is it worth it?

This ultimately has to be a personal decision, based on how much $5,000 is to you. For some families, that is an enormous amount of money, and most would opine that it would not be worth spending simply for smaller reminders of a procedures, but for others, $5,000 may not be that much.

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