Tuesday, April 13, 2010

6 Projections for the Future of Surgical Automation and Biomedical Robotics

Surgical automation and biomedical robotics - new keywords to add to our lexicon of descriptors for the healthcare segment of the robotics industry.

These and other keywords were presented at Saturday's full-day Conference on Medical Robotics held on the campus of Stanford University in the James H. Clark Center (Jim Clark = Silicon Graphics + Netscape, sailor (297' Athena) and philanthropist).

The speakers list was impressive: Fred Moll, MD, CEO of Hansen Medical (previously CEO of Intuitive Surgical); Calvin Maurer, VP, Accuray (Cyberknife); Catherine Mohr, MD, Intuitive Surgical (TED video presenter); William Bargar, MD, inventor of the ROBODOC; Pablo Garcia from SRI and lead integrator of the SRI/DARPA collaboration Trauma Pod; PhDs from CMU, Johns Hopkins, UC Santa Cruz, GRASP at U Penn, UC Berkeley, and prominent venture capitalists such as Jay Watkins, managing director of De Novo Ventures.  From talks, to demos to a final panel on the future of medical robotics... plenty of information about automating the operating room and providing new devices to assist surgeons and other healthcare professionals in providing cost-efficient and highly effective medical care.  All the presenters were available for questions and trading business cards.

I was also affected by the audience: lean, attentive, med and biomed students, job and money seekers, and quite a few VCs.

Plenty of complaints about the FDA, patents and patent protection, research and venture funding, and problems in marketing robotic products to surgeons.  Plenty of insights into the process of bringing an invention to market.  The history of how ROBODOC came to market is an exercise in patience, patents,  legal difficulties, funding to keep the business going during the many years of FDA trials, changes in management, all the while keeping the newly invented product protected and up-to-date.  Fascinating.

Projections about medical automation in the immediate future:
  1. The inevitability of black box-like data trails in most forthcoming medical robotic inventions.
  2. The role of surgeons changing from compartmentalized to complete transparency.
  3. More devices that perform their functions autonomously.
  4. Automated scrub and circulating nurses, and tele-consulting in the operating room, are likely to happen shortly.
  5. It's also likely that there will be automation in tissue suturing and bonding and also in anesthesiology. 
  6. Embedded into many new systems are arms from KUKA, Peak Robotics and other industrial and lab robot providers.  These companies have to diversify to stay afloat which is why they are bringing their wide range of products and capabilities to healthcare.
    There appeared to be consensus that the age of technological revolution in healthcare is upon us.  It's happening right now... worldwide.  In universities all over the world, as described by the professors and researchers that presented at this conference, incremental progress is being made and translated into products.  (In fact, part of the recent stimulus package distributed through the NIH is assistance in the process of commercialization.) Haptics, augmentation, robotic navigation, standardization, and also far-out sci-fi stuff like the totally robotic trauma pod project were discussed.

    This appears to be the time for role changes, particularly in relation to surgeons. It seems that robotics are leveling the playing field amongst surgeons.  Much has been written about the psychological characteristics of surgeons and their need for compartmentalization in books, studies, web forums, and websites. In this Obama-era of transparency, the silence, lack of statistical outcomes, bravado, excessive ego and other attitudes is coming to an end throughout healthcare as the push for lower costs and better patient outcomes is quantified and pursued.  Instead, the unique problem-solving and solutions skills of surgeons will be emphasized as they manage more complexity and capability in their operating rooms.

    The conference was student-organized by the Stanford Student Biodesign and Biopharma and headed by Alisha Seam.  Very energetic and professional.  I very much appreciated and learned from the experience and offer a hearty thank you to the team of students that made it happen.