Opinion: Everyone Needs Checks and Balances, Including Healthcare Industry

Some representatives of medical manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies think every lawsuit filed against them is motivated by greed, at the expense of progress in developing new devices and drugs that improve modern medical treatment.

For example, consider robotic surgery. It may sound futuristic, but actually, about two thousand da Vinci Robotic Surgical Systems are already in use around the country. Surgical instruments are inserted into the patient laparoscopically. The instruments are attached to robotic arms manipulated by surgeons. The advantage is that the robotics enable precise micro-movements of the instruments. Almost half a million robotic surgeries were performed in the U.S. during 2013. The future is now.

However, about 50 lawsuits are now pending against Intuitive Surgical, Inc., which manufactures and markets the da Vinci robotic system, the only robotic surgery system for general surgeries in use in the U.S. The lawsuits have been filed by or on behalf of patients who are among the 71 deaths and 174 nonfatal injuries reported through 2012 in surgeries using the da Vinci system.

By the way, the actual number of deaths and injuries is much higher than that, since those numbers do not include 2013 and also because many health providers fail to file such reports with the FDA, as they are supposed to.

But don’t those plaintiffs know that there are risks associated with every surgery? Don’t the attorneys who represent them care about anything except winning lawsuits? Do patients and lawyers who file legal claims want to bring medical progress to a halt?

Of course not. Robotic surgery may be a great advancement. We all want the most modern, effective healthcare possible. We all want manufacturers to keep developing new technologies and pharmaceutical companies to continue developing life-saving drugs.

However, everyone needs checks and balances. Everyone.

The Elephant in the Room

Plaintiffs and their attorneys are not the only ones with a financial motive. Intuitive Surgical had revenue of $2.2 billion in 2012; 2013 revenue probably exceeds that total. That’s a lot of monetary incentive.

Each of the two thousand hospitals with a da Vinci system paid $1 million to $2.5 million for the equipment. That’s a huge motive to use the robotics as often as possible, billing accordingly in order to justify the outlay.

No, I am not a lawyer making a case against money. What I am pointing out is that money is a factor not only on the plaintiff’s side of a lawsuit. The healthcare industry is the real elephant in the room, taking in more than $3 trillion in healthcare expenditures a year. Yes, trillions. That is an amount that defies comprehension, so here’s one comparison to put it in perspective: the U.S. healthcare industry takes in more revenue each year than the federal government collects in taxes.

That’s a system that definitely needs checks and balances.

No sensible person wants to prevent medical advances, such as the development of robotic surgery. However, there is no escaping the profit motive that is at the center of the healthcare industry; nor should there be a desire to escape it in a free enterprise system. However, when patients’ health and even their lives are at stake, we must be vigilant to make sure that health is always Motive No. 1 when it comes to the treatment doctors and hospitals prescribe.

Federal and state lawmakers and regulators attempt to create and enforce some boundaries. But the real safeguard in our nation is our system of justice. Every manufacturer and every pharmaceutical company knows that if they release a device or drug that doesn’t work as promised or has serious adverse effects, they will one day answer to the patients who suffer those adversities and to the judges and juries those patients turn to for help.

Our system of lawsuits and jury trials does not deter medical advancement. What it does hopefully do is slow things enough that manufacturers and pharmaceuticals do not rush products to market prematurely, before they have been thoroughly tested. Our system also hopefully motivates manufacturers like Intuitive Surgical to provide ample training to those who will use their complicated new technologies. Most importantly, the possibility of a lawsuit hopefully motivates the industry to be honest with the public about the promises it makes and the risks that are involved.

In the case of da Vinci Robotics, that does not mean doing away with robotic surgery. What it does mean, as revealed in an FDA survey released last month, is that surgeons using the system need good training, and beyond training, they need practice using the device. The survey also points to the importance of careful patient selection. Not everybody is a good candidate for robotic surgery. That concern applies to many new devices and drugs which may be great steps forward but may not be appropriate for every patient.

Nobody wants to stand in the way of robotic surgery and other medical advances. But most people would agree that we do not want the healthcare industry to use the general population as guinea pigs for those advances, while charging us an arm and a leg, and in some cases one’s life, for the privilege.

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For more information about robotic surgery or the da Vinci system, or for more information about your legal rights if you or a loved one have experienced adverse effects in robotic surgery, see our webpage: “Robotic Surgery Lawsuits Claim Injuries, Deaths Caused by Use of Device.”