Silicon Valley News

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Robotic Heart Surgery Has Growing Pains

Intuitive Surgical (ISRG) is the unchallenged global leader in the emerging field of minimally invasive robotic surgery. The Intuitive da Vinci robot was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2000. Now, over 1,500 robots are used to perform surgery worldwide. Intuitive has the only robotic surgical platform on the market today.

The company's rapid growth stems largely from the growing use of its robotic system for prostate cancer surgery and hysterectomies. About 70 percent of all radical prostatectomies are done robotically in the United States. A radical prostatectomy is the removal of the prostate gland.

Many analysts wonder if robotic surgery will grow beyond this niche market. One of the chief benefits of robotic surgery is that it is minimally invasive. The size of the robotic incision is very small in comparison to manual surgical incisions. As a result, robotic surgery has far fewer complications, and the recovery period is much less. The euphoria in the medical profession over the benefits of robotic surgery could lead to more widespread use. Robotic surgeons have become very prestigious. The Clinical Robotic Surgery Association will hold its second annual convention in Chicago in early October. Having a da Vinci robot is a key selling point for hospitals when recruiting surgeons.

Intuitive robots are used in a small number of heart surgeries. Lamenting the restricted use of robotic heart surgery, Bruce Fye, a Mayo Clinic heart specialist and medical historian, notes "Its terrific to say, 'Gee whiz, why don't I have a robotic operation when the alternative is taking a chain saw to my chest?' But there are too many places that won't have the volume or surgeons with the ... expertise to make it a logical choice."The lack of training and experience has been one of the chief impediments to the growth of robotic surgery, including heart operations.

Despite the challenges, acceptance of robotic heart surgery is growing. Cleveland Clinic is widely regarded as the nation's top medical facility for cardiac care. It has one of the largest robotic heart surgery programs in the country. President Obama, joined by Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, was invited to watch a video demonstration of a robotic heart surgery at Cleveland Clinic last year.

Over the last three years, Intuitive  has one of the two best performing stocks of companies listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange with a market capitalization of at least $10 billion. Only the stock of the Chinese search engine Baidu (BIDU) has been able to match that performance.

Over the last five years, the value of Intuitive stock has grown 563 percent. During this period, Apple (AAPL) has the only other Nasdaq-listed stock that has achieved  this remarkable performance among companies worth over $10 billion.