Science & Technology

What's Up, Robodoc?


The awesome news? Doctors are increasingly using robots to perform medical procedures. The less awesome news? It's really expensive, and contributing to increased spending on health care. Kevin Pho writes in USA Today

The number of robot-assisted devices has exploded. Last year, 360,000 procedures were robot-assisted around the globe, up 29% from 2010, according to Intuitive Surgical, the sole manufacturer of surgical robots. As of early this year, more than 1,500 robots were installed in the U.S.

Whether the influx of robots in our operating rooms benefits patients remains uncertain. Of the few studies that have compared robotic surgery head-to-head with a traditional, minimally invasive approach, there was no clear benefit from using the robot.

Unfortunately, this hasn't stopped hospitals from aggressively marketing robots. A 2011 study of 400 random hospital websites found that 37% featured a surgical robot on their homepage. It's no wonder hospitals are showcasing the robots. They are very expensive. At up to $2.3 million each, plus an average of $135,000 in annual service fees, they are costly hospital outlays.

Converting Medicare to a premium support system might make this less of problem. When Medicare began in the late 1960s, it gave hospitals a brand new guaranteed revenue stream which many facilities used to make capital improvements and other large scale expansions. Today, Medicare's payment system still incentivizes providers to invest in expensive equipment and services but provides far less incentive for either the provider or the patient to consider whether those investments actually create value. By giving each benefiary a fixed benefit to use toward a coverage plan of their choice, premium support would give patients and providers some incentive to start providing value while capping public exposure to the high cost of new medical technologies. 

Link via John Goodman