Hospital websites may overstate robotic surgery benefits

Promotional materials for robotic surgery on hospital websites generally overstate the procedures' benefits, ignore the associated risks and may be influenced by manufacturers, according to a study in the Journal for Healthcare Quality.

Across the past four years, the use of robots to perform various common procedures has increased by 400%, the study's lead author says.  An estimated 41% of U.S. hospital websites currently advertise robotic surgery, generally touting its clinical superiority, according to the report.

For the study, Johns Hopkins University researchers analyzed the websites of 400 randomly-selected U.S. hospitals with at least 200 beds. They found that:

  • 37% of the websites that publicized robotic surgery displayed information on the homepage and 66% of websites mentioned it within one click of the homepage.
  • 73% of the sites that mentioned robots used materials provided by the manufacturer and 33% linked directly to the manufacturer's website.
  • 89% of the sites that mentioned robots touted robotic surgery's clinical superiority over conventional surgery.
  • 85% of the sites that mentioned robotic surgery claimed it would bring less pain; 86% said it had a shorter recovery; 80% said it caused less scaring; 78% said it caused less blood loss; and 32% said it would improve cancer outcomes.

However, the findings showed that none of the websites that highlighted robotic surgery explained its potential risks. According to the study, the results illustrate how hospital websites may "overestimate the benefits and underestimate the risks of robotic surgery," which could contribute to patient misinformation.

According to the study's lead researcher, the findings suggest that hospitals are "allowing industry to speak on behalf of hospitals and make unsubstantiated claims" and that there is an inherent conflict-of-interest in using manufacturer materials on hospital websites.

"Hospitals need to be more conscientious of their role as trusted medical advisers and ensure that information provided on their websites represents the best available evidence," the lead researcher says, adding, "Otherwise it's a violation of the public trust" (Jin et al., Journal for Healthcare Quality, May 2011 [subscription required]; Hopkins release, 5/18; Cohn, "Picture of Health," Baltimore Sun, 5/18).

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