Intuitive Surgical filed all but one of those reports.
Complications can occur with any type of surgery, and so far it's unclear if they are more common in robotic operations. That's part of what the FDA is trying to find out.
Intuitive Surgical disputes there's been a true increase in problems and says the rise reflects a change it made last year in the way it reports incidents.
The da Vinci system "has an excellent safety record with over 1.5 million surgeries performed globally, and total adverse event rates have remained low and in line with historical trends," said company spokeswoman Angela Wonson.
But an upcoming research paper suggests that problems linked with robotic surgery are underreported. They include cases with "catastrophic complications," said Dr. Martin Makary, a Johns Hopkins surgeon who co-authored the paper.
"The rapid adoption of robotic surgery ... has been done by and large without the proper evaluation," Makary said.
The da Vinci system, on the market since 2000, includes a three- or four-armed robot that surgeons operate with hand controls at a computer system several feet from the patient. They see inside the patient's body through a tiny video camera attached to one of the long robot arms. The other arms are tipped with tiny surgical instruments.
Robotic operations are similar to conventional laparoscopy, or "keyhole" surgery, which involves small incisions and camera-tipped instruments controlled by the surgeon's hands, not a robot.
Almost 1,400 U.S. hospitals — nearly 1 out of 4 — have at least one da Vinci system. Each one costs about $1.45 million, plus $100,000 or more a year in service agreements.
The most common robotic operations include prostate removal — about 85 percent of these in the U.S. are done with the robot. Da Vinci is often used for hysterectomies too, Wonson said.
Makary says there's no justification for the big growth in robotic surgery, which he attributes to aggressive advertising by the manufacturer and hospitals seeking more patients.
He led a study published in 2011 that found 4 in 10 hospitals promoted robotic surgery on their websites, often using wording from the manufacturer. Some of the claims exaggerated the benefits or had misleading, unproven claims, the study said.
Stifelman, the Langone surgeon, said it makes sense for hospitals to promote robotic surgery and other new technology, but that doesn't mean it's the right option for all patients.
"It's going to be the responsibility of the surgeon ... to make sure the patient knows there are lots of options," and to discuss the risks and benefits, he said.
His hospital expects to do more than 1,200 robotic surgeries this year, versus just 175 in 2008.
For a few select procedures that require operating in small, hard-to-reach areas, robotic surgery may offer advantages, Makary said. Those procedures include head and neck cancer surgery and rectal surgery.
Some surgeons say the robotic method also has advantages for weight-loss surgery on extremely obese patients, whose girth can make hands-on surgery challenging.
"At the console, the operation can be performed effectively and precisely, translating to superior quality," said Dr. Subhashini Ayloo, a surgeon at the University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System in Chicago.
Ayloo, who uses the da Vinci robot, last year began a study on the effectiveness of robotic obesity surgery in patients who need a kidney transplant. Some hospitals won't do transplants on obese patients with kidney failure because of the risks. In the study, robotic stomach-shrinking surgery and kidney transplants are done simultaneously. Patients who get both will be compared with a control group getting only robotic kidney transplants.
"We don't know the results, but so far it's looking good," Ayloo said.
Aidee Diaz of Chicago was the first patient and was taken aback when told the dual operation would be done robotically.