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Posted on Tue, Mar 9, 2010 : 7:13 p.m.

St. Joseph Mercy Hospital surgeon sings surgical robot's praises but wouldn't recommend insisting on one

By Tina Reed


Recently, The New York Times reported more patients are beginning to insist on robot-assisted surgery in certain parts of the country.

On one hand, it makes sense when one considers the ease of training to use the technology and improved dexterity and reach during surgery compared to laporascopic surgery. On the other hand, certain robot-assisted procedures cost up to $2,000 more per patient without proof of improved patient outcomes.

In Washtenaw County, patients aren't demanding the surgical tool, said one local surgeon who was showing off the da Vinci Surgical System at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ann Arbor on Tuesday. And with the limited availability of the devices for surgery, they shouldn't be, said Robert Cleary, who's been performing more colon and rectal surgeries with the surgical robot recently.

He was speaking at an event at the hospital where passersby would have the chance to play with a demo unit of the approximately $2.2 million machine to learn more about it.

Cleary said he only learned how to use the system for the first time last year, but recently ramped up his use of the surgical robot for several surgeries. So far, the patients have all had the incisions, the pain management and the healing time that was expected - which is a good sign, he said. 

Cleary sung the praises of the impact the device has on his ability to see what he is doing and how he is able to perform surgery. He wouldn't recommend patients insist upon receiving surgeries using the robot.

The hospital is participating in a nationwide study comparing the health outcomes of patients who receive the surgery. It's being compared against other surgeries performed laparoscopically or open surgeries done by hand. And it just wouldn't make sense right now with the amount of robots available for surgeries right now, he said. 

He expects, as more studies back robotic devices in surgery in the next few years, that they will become more available.

"When you think about it, only 50 percent of the people in the country have colonoscopy services available to them. We just don't have the resources to meet the demand," Cleary said. "Well, that would be the same with robotic surgery today."

Tina Reed covers health and the environment for AnnArbor.com. You can reach her at tinareed@annarbor.com, call her at 734-623-2535 or find her on Twitter @TreedinAA.