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Does laparoscopic surgery have hidden risks?

New surgical techniques are supposed to be safer and less invasive. Laparoscopy is one example. In this type of surgery, the doctor makes a small incision and inserts a lighted tube. Compared to traditional surgery, laparoscopic surgery is marketed as safer, less invasive and resulting in less bleeding. However, a recent warning from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration suggests that one application of the surgical technique requires further investigation.

Specifically, FDA officials have issued a warning against laparoscopic power morcellators used in uterine surgeries. The devices have blades that cut tissues into small slices, allowing them to be removed from the patient’s body through small incisions. One source estimates that the devices are used in around 50,000 surgeries each year. 

In women with uterine fibroids, laparoscopic surgery might be recommended as a noninvasive way to remove the fibroids. Of course, that recommendation might be made only after a woman starts experiencing symptoms from the fibroids, such as heavy menstrual periods or even prolonged bleeding, abdominal or pelvic pain, and/or increased urination.

However, the risk of patient harm arises when a patient’s uterine fibroids have not been screened for cancer. In such a patient with undiagnosed cancer, the spinning blades might actually spread the malignant cells around. By the FDA’s estimate, around 1 in 350 women who underwent fibroid surgery may have had undetected cancer cells.

A medical malpractice attorney might draw several conclusions from this story. First, all patients have a right to make informed decisions, especially when a surgical technique might carry risks. In this case, the patients might not have been informed of the risk of internally spreading undiagnosed cancer cells. Second, the FDA also questions whether all such women who receive this type of surgery actually needed it. It’s one thing to undergo a surgical procedure to relieve pain, but in women with fibroids who were not experiencing symptoms, the procedure may have been unnecessary. Finally, to the extent that a doctor detected fibroids but failed to test for cancer, that omission could give rise to medical malpractice liability.

Source: The Week, “FDA: Common tool used in uterine surgery may help spread cancer,” Catherine Garcia, Nov. 25, 2014


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