Convenience, Not Outcomes May Drive Robot-Assisted Surgeries

The use of robotically assisted surgical devices for benign and malignant tumors is here to stay, but the decision to perform robot-assisted surgery should be driven by clinical outcomes, not convenience, physicians say.

“The problem in minimally invasive surgery, especially in cancer surgery, is that the concept has been flip-flopped,” said Hooman Noorchashm, MD, PhD, a retired cardiothoracic surgeon turned patient advocate. “The main purpose of surgery should be removal of diseased tissue or repair of damaged tissue with adequate safety. The size of the incision on that triage scheme is secondary.”

In 2013, Noorchashm’s wife, Amy Reed, MD, an anesthesiologist, had a hysterectomy for treatment of severe uterine fibroids. The surgery was performed with a laparoscopic power morcellator, which led to the dissemination of cells from a previously undetected abdominal lesion. She was later diagnosed with stage 4 leiomyosarcoma and died in May 2017.

Noorchashm said the problem with robotic surgery isn’t the technology itself or how it’s used, but why it’s used in the first place. “Not only was there an extreme level of laxity with respect to the malignant potential of fibroids, but also that the size of the incision supersedes the safety of the procedure.”

The ultimate goal of oncologic surgery is to achieve an en bloc resection with clean surgical margins and removal of the tumor intact, Noorchashm said. The only scientific way of showing the benefits or therapeutic equivalence of new technology is through noninferiority comparison trials.

Robotic Surgery Inching Toward $14 Billion in Revenue by 2028

Although robotic surgical technology has been in use since the 1990s, the technology is still considered to be its infancy. The first Food and Drug Administration–approved robotics platform, the da Vinci Surgical System (Intuitive Surgical) was approved by the FDA in 2000. And, now, with its patent expiring in 2022, competitors will be developing and launching new products for abdominal and colorectal surgery, partial knee replacements, cardiovascular procedures, head and neck surgery, and spinal procedures.

Robotic surgery is a rapidly expanding area with new product launches announced daily. In August 2021, the market research firm Grand View Research, reported the surgical robot marketplace is projected to reach $14 billion by 2028, up from $3.6 billion this year.

“This new era of robotic-assisted surgery attracts both surgeons and patients. Robotic surgery has reshaped our surgeries over the last 2 decades, and robots are now used in almost in every surgical field. Still, as surgeons, we continue to look – with great interest – to new robotic companies that may be able to provide better robots in a more cost-effective manner,” wrote urologists Ahmad Almujalhem and Koon Ho Rha in a review published in the journal BJUI Compass.

However, the authors wrote that, although the market is competitive, cost remains an issue, as are competing interests. In addition, many companies are creating replicas of existing technologies instead of focusing on new designs and new technology. “Although the da Vinci system propelled many robots to market, there has been no significant improvement in the console,” they added.

The technology is attractive to both surgeons and patients. “Surgeons are attracted to newer technologies, better vision, and easier learning curves. Patients are also attracted to robotic surgery, as this technology is considered state of the art and is associated with reduced pain and scar size,” the authors wrote.

Outcomes Depend on Many Variables

In terms of outcomes, the literature is mixed. It largely depends on a number of variables from the site of surgery, the type of cancer, technology used, and the surgeon’s skill.

Jung Mogg Kim, MD, PhD, a microbiologist with Hanyang University, Seoul, South Korea, published a systemic review and meta-analysis of 27 clinical reports in PLoS ONE assessing clinical outcomes. They found that robot-assisted laparoscopic surgery did not result in statistically superior outcomes, compared with conventional laparoscopic surgery, except for lower estimated blood loss with robots. Operative time and total complications rates were “significantly more favorable” with conventional laparoscopic procedures.

Thomas E. Ahlering, MD, a robotic prostatectomy specialist at the University of California, Irvine, explained that the success or failure of robot-assisted surgery can be highly dependent on the body site and tumor type.

“The oncologic outcome, as long as the surgeon is up to speed, is not going to be better, but the goal is to be as good,” he said in an interview.

In most cases, Ahlering said, the goal of surgery is to remove a viable tumor with clean margins while leaving the organ intact. But in prostate surgery, the goal is to remove the entire organ while trying to preserve urinary continence and sexual function.

“One of the biggest benefits of the robot is that we’re able to use it in a laparoscopic environment meaning that we need a pneumoperitoneum [which] dramatically decreases bleeding. In prostate cancer, the area is so highly vascular that bleeding is a major issue,” he said.

The same benefits of reduced bleeding, improved visualization, and precision are also seen with robotic-assisted surgery for renal cancer, he noted.

He also emphasized that positive surgical margins, while less desirable than complete elimination of malignant cells, is not nearly as dire in prostate cancer as it is in surgery for other malignancies, such as soft-tissue sarcomas.

“The majority of cases are never going to recur, and if they do recur they essentially never lead to metastatic disease to bone, much less to prostate cancer–related death. The only thing they can do is slightly increase the PSA [prostate-specific antigen] recurrence,” he said.

Assuming that outcomes are comparable between an open procedure, conventional laparoscopic procedure, or robot-assisted approach, surgeons “will almost all go for the robot. It’s easier on the surgeon and it’s easier on the system,” Ahlering said.

In skilled hands for select patients, the use of a carefully researched and well-designed surgical assistive device can result in outcomes that are comparable with those seen in open surgical procedures, with robot-assisted surgery offering the possibility of less perioperative bleeding, lower postoperative morbidity, and faster recovery times.

“In our program we have been using robots to perform robotic radical prostatectomy and nephron-sparing surgery – partial nephrectomy and we’re also using them to perform intracorporeal bowel reconstruction and robotic radical cystectomy,” said Ashutosh Tewari, MD, of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York.

Robot-assisted surgery can be used “anywhere where you have to be selective, anywhere where you have to be reconstructive, anywhere where [assisted] vision can help, anywhere where the lack of bleeding will be of help to patients, and anywhere where a smaller incision can achieve the same goals,” Tewari said in an interview. Tewari’s Mount Sinai colleagues reported at the 2021 American Urological Association annual meeting, robotic-assisted salvage radical and partial nephrectomies were found to be safe and feasible procedures in patients with metachronous kidney tumors. For patients with early invasive cancer (stage pT1), oncologic outcomes with robotic-assisted partial nephrectomy were similar to those of patients who underwent radical surgery. The authors concluded that salvage robotic-assisted partial nephrectomy “can be considered in this group of patients due to the risk of future recurrences and need to preserve renal function.”

The National Comprehensive Cancer Network guideline for prostate cancer, updated in September 2021, states that “laparoscopic and robot-assisted radical prostatectomy are commonly used and are considered comparable to conventional approaches in experienced hands.”

In 2018, researchers in a multinational comparison trial reported that patients with cervical cancer who were randomly assigned to minimally invasive robot-assisted radical hysterectomy had significantly lower rates of both disease-free survival and overall survival than women randomized to open abdominal radical hysterectomy. The study results were published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The use of robotically assisted surgical (RAS) devices could possibly create a “shielding layer” between the surgical team and patient reducing the risk of infection, according to Ajmal Zemmar, MD, PhD, FMH, a neurosurgeon with the University of Louisville (Ky.) Zemmar and colleagues recently published a perspective in Nature Machine Intelligence on trends in the use of surgical robots.

“In the operating theatre, robots can place intravascular lines, intubate the patient and manage the airway. The integration of a robot as a shielding layer, physically separating the health care worker and patient, is a powerful tool to combat the omnipresent fear of pathogen contamination and maintain surgical volumes,” Zemmar and colleagues wrote.

Surgical vs. Clinical Outcomes

In July 2021, this news organization reported that clinical trials of RAS for nipple-sparing mastectomy procedures were looking primarily at cosmetic or surgical outcomes and were not collecting cancer outcomes and if they were, it was secondary to cosmetic or surgical outcomes.

The FDA followed up by issuing a safety communication in August warning patients and providers that neither the safety nor efficacy of RAS for use in mastectomy procedures or treatment of breast cancer have been established.

“In addition, the FDA is aware of allegations that clinical studies are being conducted using RAS devices to perform mastectomies for the prevention or treatment of cancer without the FDA oversight required for such significant risk studies,” the communication stated.

Tewari disclosed relationships with various companies. Noorchashm had no relevant disclosures. Ahlering disclosed past funding or other considerations from Intuitive Robotics.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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