As more and more surgical robots make their way into operating rooms, companies are learning valuable lessons about how their devices function in the real world.  Though many existing design features are proving highly effective, physician response suggests that current systems should evolve to include additional capabilities, like “haptic feedback.”  While discussing what it’s like to perform surgery without it, a UCLA associate professor of electrical engineering recently explained, “You can see what you’re doing, but imagine trying to tie your shoes without having a sense of touch.”

Today, private companies and institutions like UCLA are developing technologies that will one day give surgeons the ability to not only see but also feel during robotic surgeries. One such technology accomplishes this “through  [a] sensor that, when placed on the tips of surgical instruments, would provide feedback [in the form of vibrations, forces and buzzes] on the various forces exerted on body tissues to better guide surgery.”  Given the numerous obvious benefits of physicians feeling the tissue on which they operate, it’s not a stretch of the imagination to assume that in the not too distant future, haptic feedback will be considered a state-of-the-art function in surgical robots.

Product liability laws in many states look to whether a device represented the state-of-the-art at the time of its manufacture.  In Florida for example, Florida Statute Section 768.1257 sets out the state-of-the-art defense as follows: “In an action based upon defective design, brought against the manufacturer of a product, the finder of fact shall consider the state of the art of scientific and technical knowledge and other circumstances that existed at the time of manufacture, not at the time of loss or injury.”

Surgical robot manufacturers that are either currently marketing units or in the process of launching new competitor devices should give serious consideration to incorporating haptic feedback into their products.  Those companies that are not interested in licensing or otherwise acquiring this feature should invest into developing their own in-house technologies.  Failing to do so now may result not only in an inferior product down the line, but also in one that is much more difficult to defend in the event of litigation.