New York Times “Novelties” story ramps up robotic hype

A journalist wrote me: “Ack! Another rah rah rah robotic surgery article, this time in the Times.”

The blogging surgeon known as the Skeptical Scalpel tweeted:

ICYMI. Robotic surgery puff piece in the NY Times.

What draws their ire?

A New York Times piece, “When Robotic Surgery Leaves Just a Scratch.”

It discusses some new robotic surgery approaches, including in children.  It’s interesting.  It clearly offers some potential.

But the story includes no data, no evidence of efficacy.  Just generic, fawning, unquestioning promotion, either from the words of the writer or from quotes from true-believer-surgeons – such as:

  • His patients generally go home a day or two after surgery, he said, “but I think they would recover more quickly if I could reduce my multiple incisions to just one,” he said. “And there will be less scarring, or even no scarring, if you enter through the navel.”
  • “We surgeons love using the robot.”
  • “We may get to the point where we do outpatient, scarless robotic surgery.”

Finally, toward the end, the story states:

Robotic systems, though, have yet to show that they are always worth the extra money they cost.

That cost, as the story explains, is  $1.3 million to $2.2 million with potentially $60,000 or more for the “add-on” device featured.

Gee, it might be nice to attach some data to that kind of price tag and to the claims above.  Or doesn’t the Grey Lady consider that news that’s “fit to print”?

Just go to the Skeptical Scalpel’s blog and enter “robotic surgery” in the search box to see some of the evidence questions one might raise.

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Walter Lipman

November 26, 2012 at 10:30 am

From the Skeptical Scalpel’s blog, this gem: