Robotically assisted surgery being performed at a Swedish hospital. Photo: Magnus Hjalmarson Neideman/TT

County councils take hit for robot investments

The Swedish Council on Health Technology Assessment is critical of Swedish local county councils' heavy investments on robotic surgery. County councils have spent millions on the costly technology over the past few years, and the Assessment Council argues that the method lacks enough scientific support to warrant the hefty price tag.

Surgical robots are catching on with Swedish surgeons and local county councils. Instead of performing traditional open hand surgery, an increasing number of surgeons choose to manoeuvre a robotic arm outfitted with small tools such as scissors, sharp blades and grippers, from a computer that gives them a full 3-D view of the surgical field.

Reported benefits range from less blood loss for the patient, smaller scars and faster recovery times but the robots are also used to relieve surgeons' backs and perform delicate operations that could be difficult to do by normal open hand surgery.

But critics say that surgical robots are not the least invasive method, nor far from the most cost effective. Jan-Erik Johansson, surgeon and expert at the Swedish Council on Health Technology Assessmen, says to Swedish Radio that there isn't enough evidence to support that surgical robots actually improve surgeries and that many county councils are too quick to jump on the latest technological trend.

"It's remarkable how quickly these robots have spread. There is no hard evidence that proves that this method is superior to open hand surgery. There needs to be more studies to assess how effective these robots really are," Johansson says.

In Sweden, surgical robots have been around for about ten years and are primarily used to assist in prostate removal surgeries. The past few years local county councils have invested over 380 million krona on buying surgical robots and training their staff in how to operate them.

At roughly 20 million krona each, Sweden has a whopping 19 robots ready to assist with surgeries. That's far too many according to Jan-Erik Johansson, who argues that twelve robots would be enough to handle all of Sweden's prostate removal surgeries and adds that both county councils and patients could have benefited from fewer robots.

"The robots are so expensive. They attribute to higher fees for all surgical procedures in the region. This could be avoided if the county councils could share robots instead," Johansson says.

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