On Monday, the New York Times reported on the controversy surrounding Intuitive Surgical Inc.’s “daVinci” robotic surgery system — a product that allows doctors to “conduct” surgeries remotely on a console while robotic arms scale and translate their movements onto the actual patient. While high-tech systems like this are supposed to make procedures safer and more efficient, the daVinci lawsuit — which centers on a patient who eventually died from complications arising from the system’s use — reveals that a combination of factors, such as inadequate product testing and aggressive marketing strategies driven by profits, often undermine that goal.
That’s a frustrating reality for health care reform advocates on the lookout for effective methods of cutting national health expenditures while improving patient care. Although innovation in health care technology had undoubtedly improved lives and made care more efficient in the aggregate, as demonstrated through breakthroughs like vaccines and birth control, it has also accounted for at least half of the increase in health care spending in the last 70 years. While that may sound counter-intuitive at first, a quick dive into America’s health care culture shows why it’s not — and why innovations like “robot doctors” aren’t actually lowering health care costs:
1. It’s almost impossible to tell how much various health care technologies actually cost.
One of the most persistent problems in the American medical industry is rampant health care price opacity. Time Magazine’s recent investigative look into Americans’ sky-high medical bills revealed what many already suspected — that the prices of various medical products and services are essentially arbitrary, fluctuating wildly from one hospital chain to another and even more wildly between different geographic regions.
Since there isn’t an easily-accessible national database of medical devices and their prices, manufacturers can pitch their products at varying rates to hospitals and jack up prices with relative impunity. Those inflated costs are then passed on to consumers by providers looking to recoup their money — and since patients tend to trust their doctors and not know much about the intricacies of health care device markets, they don’t ask too many questions when they’re left to pick up an enormous, generally non-itemized tab at the end of a hospital stay that gives them no information about why they’re being charged what they are. Thus, price gouging and a general lack of perfect information in health care allows expensive consumption to continue unchecked.