Biotech Strategy Blog

Commentary on Science, Innovation & New Products with a focus on Oncology, Hematology & Cancer Immunotherapy

Posts tagged ‘Robotic Surgery’

That was the question that I asked Walter Artibani, Professor and Chair of Urology at the University of Verona during the recent European Association of Urology (EAU) annual Congress in Paris.

Urologists have failed as scientists to generate evidence based medicine

Professor Artibani told the assembled media that urologists had failed as scientists in not generating robust clinical data to support the use of the da Vinci robotic system for the removal of the prostate gland (prostatectomy).

Something that I was not aware of until I attended the media briefing was that so called “robotic surgery” is not an automated robot performing the surgery on its own, but instead it’s actually robot assisted surgery.

The da Vinci surgical device (currently the only one on the market) is a telemanipulation system where the surgeon sits at a remote console and operates a surgical cart with three or four arms that are docked with endoscopic instruments that are inserted into the patient.

Professor Artibani in response to my question said:

“After 10 years, the urologic community missed the window to have prospective randomized clinical trial in order to have clear answers.”

What’s more he went on to say that he believed it would be unlikely we could now do a prospective trial that compared robot-assisted prostatectomy to laparascopic prostatectomy to open prostatectomy. The reason for this was that :

“Most of the patients are convinced that the new way, the novel way is the better way.”

The following is a video excerpt of Professor Artibani’s answer to my questions.  For digital accuracy, viewers should note that I added in some slides he presented earlier, and included a graphic of the paper he referenced.

Have the media sensationalized robotic surgery?

Artibani went on to say in his answer to my question that the media and journalists have not always reported the lack of robust data surrounding new surgical techniques:

“It is easy just to give the information that what is new is better and this must be demonstrated by robust data before giving the information. Unfortunately sensationalism is more important than to say and to write robust data.”

Healthcare journalists have an obligation to report on the limitations of new techniques and lack of evidence based medicine is an important one!  Gary Schwitzer’s healthcare journalist watchdog, Health News Review, attempts to hold the media to account.

We should clearly challenge surgical practice for which there is a lack of robust clinical data or evidence based medicine, and avoid sensationalism.

However, whatever the limitations of the media reporting, the reason for the lack of evidence based medicine rests firmly with the academic urology community.

Low quality of evidence for Robot-Assisted Laparoscopic Prostatectomy

In an editorial in the journal “European Urology,” Markus Graefen noted the low quality of urology research that was being published did not just apply to robot-assisted prostatectomy.  He noted that in urology,

“The number of low-quality papers is increasing; however, the body of evidence and the knowledge we have about the reported outcomes, unfortunately, is not.”


He went on to describe the need to counsel patients on the different surgical approaches available to them:

A patient with a newly diagnosed prostate cancer who is counselled for his therapeutic options today should be informed that several equal surgical approaches are available and that despite all the perfectly styled Web pages, it is not the robot that makes the difference.

He should be informed that there are indeed concerns about oncologic and functional outcomes and also evidence that in some significant papers the traditional surgical approaches look superior.

This editorial suggests that patients should ignore the marketing hype about new equipment or the notion that “new is better,” but instead focus on the experience of the surgeon with that equipment and the functional outcomes that a surgeon obtains in his/her patients.

Patients are interested in functional outcomes and low complication rates

What I heard at EAU from urologists is that patients are interested in a good functional outcome and low complication rate.

There is, however, no level 1 evidence that post-operative urinary incontinence and erectile dysfunction rates are generally better with robot-assisted radical prostatectomy.

Diana Kang and colleagues in a review of seventy-five research publications between 2005 and 2008 that reported robot-assisted laparscopic prostatectomy (RALP) data, concluded that there was a need to raise the standards of urology clinical research:

Our findings draw into question to what extent valid conclusions about the relative superiority or equivalence of RALP to other surgical approaches can be drawn and whether published outcomes can be generalised to the broader community.

There is an urgent need to raise the methodologic standards for clinical research on new urologic procedures and devices.

Men with prostate cancer who are considering surgery should be informed that there is no high-level or robust evidence to show the general superiority of robotic-assisted prostatectomy compared to other surgical techniques for radical prostatectomy.

Hopefully, the demand for evidence based urology treatment will grow, and that lessons have been learned from the way robotic-assisted surgery was introduced. Men with prostate cancer do deserve better.

ResearchBlogging.orgKang, D., Hardee, M., Fesperman, S., Stoffs, T., & Dahm, P. (2010). Low Quality of Evidence for Robot-Assisted Laparoscopic Prostatectomy: Results of a Systematic Review of the Published Literature European Urology, 57 (6), 930-937 DOI: 10.1016/j.eururo.2010.01.034

Graefen, M. (2010). Low Quality of Evidence for Robot-Assisted Laparoscopic Prostatectomy: A Problem Not Only in the Robotic Literature European Urology, 57 (6), 938-940 DOI: 10.1016/j.eururo.2010.02.004

A survey of patients who had their prostate removed showed there was no significant difference in complication rates between open retropubic radical prostatectomy (ORRP) and robotic assisted laparoscopic surgery (RALRP).

This is an important finding because 85% of prostatectomies in the United States are undertaken using robotic-assisted techniques, yet there has been little published data to show that this technique improves functional outcomes.

At the European Association of Urology (EAU) annual congress last year in Vienna some of the challenges and opportunies with robotic surgery were raised:

  • lack of data on improved functional outcome
  • need for licensing of robotic surgeons
  • high learning curve – it takes 250 patients to become proficient

In reality, we see hospitals marketing their robotic surgery to patients in shopping malls and with advertisements on the side of buses.  You can read Gary Schwitzer’s thoughts on some of the recent marketing claims & “gizmo idolatry.”

This is why a survey comparing the results of open to robotic assisted prostate removal surgery is important evidence based medicine. Published online first in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, Barry and colleagues randomly surveyed 800 men who filed Medicare claims between August and December 2008.  685 completed surveys were returned, and information on adverse events was obtained.

The data highlights the dramatic effect on quality of life that prostate cancer surgery can have, irrespective of the surgical technique. The men rated themselves:

31.1% – moderate or big problem with continence  (95% CI 27.5 to 34.8%)

88.0% – moderate or big problem with sexual function (95% CI 85.4% to 90.6%)

Breaking this down by technique (robotic surgery versus open prostatectomy):

Continence: 27.1% of men (Open) versus 33.3% (Robotic) – not significant (P=0.113)

Sexual Function: 89.0% of men (Open) versus 87.5% (Robotic) – not significant (P=0.57)

The authors conclude in their JCO paper:

Our results do not demonstrate a lower risk of problems with incontinence or sexual function after RALRP compared with ORRP.

In fact, after adjusting for potential confounders, there was at least a strong trend toward a higher risk of patient-reported moderate or big problems with incontinence following RALRP.

The authors in their discussion do raise the interesting question as to whether patients were led to believe that they would have fewer side effects with robotic surgery, which may have impacted the survey findings.  This merits further investigation.

There is clearly a need for patients to give informed consent, and be aware of the risks and complications of prostate cancer surgery, particularly with regards fundamental quality of life issues such as continence or sexual function.

The accompanying JCO editorial by Matthew Cooperberg and colleagues from UCSF is well worth reading and raises the question as to whether men with prostate cancer should expect better outcomes than those reported in the survey?

What the survey by Barry et al did not do is look at the volume of procedures and experience level of the surgeon, both of which are associated with outcomes.

Cooperberg noted that “surgeons performing fewer than 5 prostatectomies per year account for approximately half the national volume.

A chilling statistic, and if you factor in the learning curve of more than 200 procedures to be competent at robotic surgery, it is perhaps not surprising that some men experience higher complication rates than others.

Which brings me back to the importance of the PIVOT (Prostate Cancer Intervention versus Observation Trial) data presented in the plenary session at the 2011 annual meeting of the American Urological Association (AUA) in May last year.

Why has this practice changing data not been published in a peer-reviewed journal yet?

The fact that the updated PIVOT study results presented at AUA 2011 have not been published (to the best of my knowledge) is a disservice not only to the medical and scientific community, but to men with prostate cancer whose treatment should be guided by evidence-based medicine.

The long-term results of the PIVOT trial presented by Professor Wilt showed no benefit of radical prostatectomy over watchful waiting, except for high-risk patients.  Yet, the reality is that many men end up having surgery. This may be considered overtreatment and an exposure of more men than is necessary to the complications of prostatectomy, irrespective of whether this is robotic or open surgery.

The decision to undergo radical prostatectomy should be an informed one, not only as to the risks and benefits of the surgical technique, but also whether the surgery should be performed in the first place as compared to “watchful waiting.”

I hope the paper and editorial published in the JCO this month will generate some debate. Next month I will be at the European Urology Association annual congress in Paris.


ResearchBlogging.orgBarry, M., Gallagher, P., Skinner, J., & Fowler, F. (2012). Adverse Effects of Robotic-Assisted Laparoscopic Versus Open Retropubic Radical Prostatectomy Among a Nationwide Random Sample of Medicare-Age Men Journal of Clinical Oncology DOI: 10.1200/JCO.2011.36.8621

Cooperberg, M., Odisho, A., & Carroll, P. (2012). Outcomes for Radical Prostatectomy: Is It the Singer, the Song, or Both? Journal of Clinical Oncology DOI: 10.1200/JCO.2011.38.9593

Update August 12, 2012 – Paper published in European Urology shows lower incontinence and greater rate of erection recovery with robot-assisted radical prostatectomy

A paper published online (July 20, 2012) in the journal, European Urology by Franceso Porpiglia provides some evidence that robot-assisted radical prostatectomy offers functional benefits to patients. I have not read the full paper only the freely available abstract.

The clinical trial evaluated the functional outcomes of 120 men in a randomized clinical trial where half (n=60) received radical prostatectomy (RARP) that was robot-assisted and the other half (n=60) who had the operation laparoscopically without robot assistance (LRP).

Following the surgery performed by Dr Porpiglia, the functional outcomes between the two groups were compared. Those men operated on with robot assistance showed:

  • Lower incontinence. “Continence after 3 mo was 80% in the RARP group and 61.6% in the LRP group (p = 0.044), and after 1 yr, the continence rate was 95.0% and 83.3%, respectively (p = 0.042)”
  • Better erection recovery. “Among preoperative potent patients treated with nerve-sparing techniques, the rate of erection recovery was 80.0% and 54.2%, respectively (p = 0.020).”

The challenge of this study is that although it was randomized, it reflects the results of only one surgeon with a small number of patients.

Dr Matthew Cooperberg (@cooperberg_ucsf) was quoted by Reuters saying that this was likely the best study we were going to get showing the benefits of RARP over LRP. On twitter he said the real question was now between radical prostatectomy and external radiation therapy (XRT).

Hospital marketing departments love new technology – the latest imaging, diagnostic or surgical equipment offers a point of differentiation from the competition.  This is particularly important in the United States where patients have a choice of hospital and surgeon.   Advertisements highlighting new technology are common, and patients actively seek out the “latest” option.

Today at the European Association of Urology (EAU) annual congress in Vienna, Associate Professsor Axel Merseburger from Hannover in Germany discussed some of the challenges with robotic surgery for prostatectomy or partial nepthrectomy.

  1. Lack of data showing an improved functional outcome compared to single port laparascopy or open surgery.  I was surprised that there are no comparative clinical trials that show robotic surgery to be better/worse than other surgical techniques. Complication rates remain inconclusive and urinary function is comparable. What is more, the panel of leading urologists concluded that high quality clinical trials would be difficult to design and enroll. One challenge in any surgical technique clinical trial is controlling for surgical experience; an important factor in determining outcome.   
  2. The need for licensing of robotic surgeons.  In the same way that airline pilots need to renew their licence every year and show they are competent in the skills required to fly a plane, there seemed to be concensus by the EAU panel that some form of “licensing” for robotic surgery should be required. However, as one member of the panel pointed out, it takes 250 patients to become proficient in new technology, which raises the issue of how that skill is obtained and if you were a patient, would you like to be one of those initial 250?
  3. The cost/benefit trade-off for robotic surgery remains unclear.  Robotic surgery takes longer, but is associated with shorter hospital stays, reduced blood loss and distinct cosmetic benefits. The fact that so much can be done through a small incision through the belly button is quite impressive.    However, the higher cost associated with the robotic procedures in terms of time, equipment and training has to be considered when there is no evidence of better functional outcome.  Do the benefits outweigh the costs?  The answer to that is not yet clear.

The take home that I took from the presentation by Dr Merseburger is that choice of surgeon is the key factor when facing any urology surgical procedure. As Dr Merseburger stated in one of his slides, “The risk of complication is related to the surgeons experience regardless of the surgical approach.” 

Those patients who are interested in robotic surgery should carefully consider the surgeon’s experience, with that particular equipment.  I expect we will see an ongoing debate about how innovations in surgical technology should be evaluated.

error: Content is protected !!