Prevalence of Robot-Assisted Surgery Illustrates the Negatives of Fee-For-Service Systems

Jacob Barnyard, MJSLT Staffer


In 2000, the Food and Drug Administration approved the use of the da Vinci Surgical System, a robot designed to aid surgeons perform minimally invasive surgeries. The system consists of multiple arms carrying a camera and surgical instruments controlled by a nearby surgeon through a specialized console.

While few would argue the cool-factor of this technology, the actual benefits are significantly less clear. Researchers have conducted multiple studies to determine how the system affects patient outcomes, with results varying based on the type of procedure. One finding has been fairly consistent, however: unsurprisingly, costs associated with the use of robots are significantly higher.  

The use of the da Vinci Surgical System has increased enormously since its initial release, even in surgeries with little or no evidence of any benefit. A rational consumer, however, would try to maximize expected utility by only undergoing robotically-assisted surgery if the expected benefits for that particular surgery outweighed the expected increase in cost. A possible explanation for part of the growing popularity of this technology may be the prevalence of fee-for-service models in the U.S. healthcare system.  

In a fee-for-service model, each service provider involved in a patient’s care charges separately and charges for each service provided. As a result, these providers have an incentive to perform as many different services as possible, frequently providing unnecessary care. The consumer has little reason to care about these increased costs because they are often paid by insurance companies. Consequently, when a surgeon suggests the use of the da Vinci Surgical System, the patient has no incentive to research whether the system actually provides any benefits for the surgery they are undergoing.

A proposed alternative method to the fee-for-service model is a system using bundled payments. Under this system, a provider charges one lump sum for its services and divides it between each party involved in providing the care. This eliminates the incentive to provide unnecessary care as that would only increase the provider’s costs without increasing revenue. Robots would theoretically only be used in surgeries if they actually provide a net benefit. A potential drawback, however, is a decrease in potentially helpful services in an effort to cut costs. Currently, the available evidence suggests that this is not an issue in practice, however, and that some performance indicators may actually improve.  

The Affordable Care Act included incentives to adopt the bundled payment system, but fee-for-service is still vastly more common in the United States. While bundled payments have been shown to lead to a modest decrease in healthcare costs, many physicians are unsurprisingly opposed to the idea. Consequently, change to a bundled payment system on a meaningful scale is unlikely to occur under the incentive structure created by current laws.