Analysts “surprised” at sudden Intuitive Surgical sell-off

Intuitive Surgical's robot-assisted surgical operations

Intuitive Surgical (NSDQ:ISRG) shares suffered a sudden sell-off today after the American Congress of Obstetricians & Gynecologists released a statement questioning some of the marketed benefits of robot-assisted surgery.

ACOG president Dr. James Breeden issued a statement warning that the benefits of robot-assisted surgery may also be achieved through other minimally invasive methods that aren’t as costly as the high-tech procedure.

"At a time when there is a demand for more fiscal responsibility and transparency in healthcare, the use of expensive medical technology should be questioned when less-costly alternatives provide equal or better patient outcomes," Breeden wrote.

The letter never mentioned Intuitive Surgical by name, but the company is generally perceived as the face of robot-assisted surgery. Intuitive Surgical has a corner on much of the market, including minimally invasive hysterectomies and prostatectomies. However, the technology is still relatively new and some have criticized the lack of sufficient clinical data directly comparing robot-assisted surgery to other minimally invasive procedures.

"While there may be some advantages to the use of robotics in complex hysterectomies, especially for cancer operations that require extensive surgery and removal of lymph nodes, studies have shown that adding this expensive technology for routine surgical care does not improve patient outcomes," Breeden wrote. "Consequently, there is no good data proving that robotic hysterectomy is even as good as – let alone better – than existing, and far less costly, minimally invasive alternatives."

Robot-assisted procedures have had some rough PR in recent months, and Breeden’s remarks are not the 1st to warn that healthcare providers may be over-promising the potential of the technology.

Last month a report published in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. similarly questioned the value of robot-assisted hysterectomy in terms of the increased cost and the benefit to patients.

"Because both laparoscopic and robotic-assisted hysterectomy are associated with low complication rates, it is unclear what benefits robotically assisted hysterectomy offers," according to the February report. "When the innovation being advertised is of questionable advantage, direct-to-consumer promotion may only fuel unnecessary utilization."

Given the similarity between the JAMA article and the statement released by ACOG today, analysts questioned the exodus reaction on Wall Street that pulled ISRG shares down 5% by about 4:10 p.m. That’s more bad news for Intuitive Surgical and its shares, which were slowly attempting to claw back from an 11% drop they suffered on February 28 after the FDA revealed that it was probing complication rates associated with the da Vinci surgical system.

The company responded to the inquiry today, explaining that the apparent rise in incidents is a reflection of new reporting practices and not a change in produce performance.