If you are a woman and you have the choice between a doctor removing your uterus with her own hands, or having a robot perform the procedure that allows for more precise movements during the procedure, which would you choose?
Over the years, more and more woman have been choosing the robotic option -- specifically, the daVinci Robotic System designed and manufactured by Intuitive Surgical (NASDAQ:ISRG). That helps explain why shares of the company's stock have risen more than 6,000% in the past decade.
But, unfortunately, a recent report appearing in the Journal of the American Medical Association is calling into question the effectiveness of robotic surgery in the case of hysterectomies.
The specifics of the report
In 2007, a scant 0.5% of all hysterectomies were performed robotically. By 2010, that number had risen to 9.5% -- a pretty enormous increase over such a short time frame. Researchers studied the cases of roughly 250,000 women over that time frame who had either robotic or traditional hysterectomies.
The results showed that complications rates from the procedure stood at 5.5% for those performed robotically, and 5.3% for those performed traditionally. Though this wasn't enough to be statistically significant, the costs associated with the robotic procedure are much higher than standard surgery. This -- said the study's authors -- begs the question: Why use robotic surgery at all for hysterectomies?
Intuitive's chief medical advisor, Myriam Curet, said that because the study didn't look at the long-term benefits of robotic procedures -- like patient recovery time -- that it failed to paint a complete picture of what minimally invasive robotic procedures have to offer.
Also lost in the report was the fact that researchers did find one huge pattern: "as use of the robot increased, there was a decrease in the percentage of women who received a traditional 'open' hysterectomy, in which the uterus is removed through a large incision in the abdomen."
What this means for the company
Intuitive is more than a one-trick pony. The company's robot is used primarily in gynecological and urological procedures, but is also being tested for effectiveness in cardiothoracic, head and neck, and general surgery. That being said, U.S. hysterectomy procedures accounted for 39% of all da Vinci procedures performed in 2012.
A significant decline in the number of hysterectomies being performed would change the makeup of the company's revenue stream quite significantly.
One thing to remember, however, is that the push to use da Vinci comes just as much from patients demanding the option as it does from doctors adopting it. Knowing that the number of open and invasive procedures shrunk as da Vinci operations rose can be a huge factor when one is determining what route to take when having surgery.
This report is but one piece in the puzzle for investors looking to own a part of a company that is changing the way some soft-tissue procedures are carried out, both in the U.S. and abroad.