Intuitive Surgical (NSDQ:ISRG) president & CEO Gary Guthart today defended the company’s da Vinci robot-assisted surgical system, saying that the "vigorous" public debate over the risks and adverse events has played a big part in the company’s deceleration over the past couple of quarters.
Guthart told an audience at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare conference today that, despite the increase in adverse events associated with the system, da Vinci surgery is still far safer than open surgery, even for physicians who are using the system for the 1st time.
He referred to a study recently publicized by Intuitive Surgical, which found that the da Vinci system helped improve procedural outcomes in prostatectomies, even in surgeons who had not used the platform before.
"Da Vinci is absolutely safer than the alternatives," Guthart said, citing prospective registries looking at adverse events compared with open surgery. "As that has been absorbed by both hospitals and by the community, they’re starting to see that [adverse events] is a small rate, it’s a declining rate."
"We care about it, we watch it and it’s important to us," he added.
Guthart characterized the growth in adverse event reports as a consequence of growth in da Vinci procedures rather than an issue with the system itself, which he said was blameless in many of the adverse events reports tied to the platform.
"If you look at a lot of the adverse events that are reported, they are common complications of surgery," he said. "They are not, in many, many cases, a technology issue."
Intuitive has been under a microscope in recent months as patient injury lawsuits have helped to spur a flurry of adverse event reports tied to the da Vinci system. Growing complaints have drawn the ire of some activist investors and prompted a lot of media attention, despite Intuitive’s claims that adverse events have been in decline compared with growing utilization of the technology.
Some studies have criticized da Vinci procedures as a costlier type of minimally invasive surgery that confers little benefits over laparoscopic procedures. A study published earlier this year found that robotic surgery complications may be under-reported and therefore less safe than they appear, a conclusion Intuitive called "misleading." Studies published last year raised similar concerns regarding robotic surgery prostatectomies and robotic surgeries to treat endometrial cancer.
Despite the deceleration and public debate, Intuitive topped Wall Street’s expectations for its 4th-quarter sales, sending share prices up 6.8% to close at $419.88 today. ISRG shares are up 9.3% since the start of the year but are still 2% lower than they were about 6 months ago.