Robot defenders

I was unhappy with the Wall Street Journal’s coverage of the Da Vinci surgical robot last week. I’m happy to see the Journal print three letters on the subject that are right on the money.

As I wrote (Robot as scapegoat) the reporter unfairly blamed the robot and its marketers for sins that would have been more appropriately pinned on others.

  • There were examples of surgeries where the robot was used and caused injury. But that’s more of a reason to avoid small, inexperienced hospitals in general. It has little to do with the use of robots per se. And the article told us nothing of the error or complications rate with non-robotic surgeries at the same hospital.
  • The article took issue with the way the robot was marketed: as a money maker and market share gaining tool for hospitals. Yet that marketing approach reflects the reality of the hospital mentality, not an evil invention of the robot pushers.

The letters add to this perspective:

  • A surgeon who attended a conference and had fun testing out a surgical robot writes, “I am eager to embrace and learn about new surgical tools with an open mind, but more so now using my own conscience.”
  • A patient from Virginia lauds the experienced surgical team that used a robot in his successful surgery. The lead surgeon doesn’t let others use the robot till they’ve built up sufficient experience.
  • A Michigander suggests patients use the article as a reminder to do their diligence before picking a hospital –and to avoid those that lack sufficient experience

I’m pleased to see the robot article trigger a healthy response about medical ethics, technology, and consumerism, even if I’m disappointed the Journal didn’t get it right in the first place.

May 10, 2010

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