Intuitive Warns Surgeons of Friction With Robotic Surgical Arms

By Shannon Pettypiece | December 4, 2013

Intuitive Surgical Inc., the maker of a $1.5 million robot surgery system, told doctors that friction in the arms of some of its devices could cause the unit to stall, the second warning the company has issued about its products in a month.

The company sent an “urgent medical device recall” Nov. 11 alerting customers of the problem, which affects 1,386 of the systems worldwide, the Food and Drug Administration said in a Dec. 3 notice on its website. The stalling may result in a sudden “catch-up” if the surgeon pushes through the resistance, the agency said.

Intuitive is facing growing questions about its marketing strategies, training procedures and the safety of its devices, Bloomberg News has reported. The FDA said last month that the number of adverse event reports, including deaths, injuries and system malfunctions, has more than doubled this year as of Nov. 3 compared with all of 2012.

“Reports of friction within certain instrument arms can interrupt smooth instrument motion,” the FDA said on its website. “This can be felt by the surgeon as resistance in the movement of the master. In this situation, the instrument can stall momentarily and then suddenly catch-up to the master position if the surgeon pushes through the resistance.”

Intuitive’s sales and share price have taken a hit this year. On Oct. 17, Intuitive reported a decline in third-quarter earnings as a result of lower revenue. Intuitive, based in Sunnyvale, California, fell 2.4 percent to $364 at 9:03 a.m. New York time. The company has lost 29 percent of its value in the 12 months through yesterday.

FDA Scrutiny

Bloomberg first reported in February that the FDA was looking into the challenges surgeons face with the robotic systems, first approved by the agency in 2000 after a trial of 233 patients done at a hospital in Mexico City.

A survey by the agency released Nov. 8 included 11 doctors who have performed from 70 to 600 robot surgeries each. While the unidentified surgeons said the device led to fewer complications and shorter recoveries, they reported incidents in which robot arms collided or missed a mark and said training was an issue.

In October, the company sent an “urgent medical device correction” letter to users warning of potential problems with metal coating on a lamp that may not be compatible with the control board.

(With assistance from Robert Langreth in New York. Editors: Bruce Rule, Reg Gale)

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