Technology will always pace healthcare (and it should)

Human touch: Flesh-and-blood doctors will always be at the controls, but with innovators like Northwell Health Urology Chairman (and surgical robotics pioneer) Louis Kavoussi on the job, AI and other tech breakthroughs are enabling huge healthcare advances.

Healthcare has always been at the forefront of technological development; robotics and artificial intelligence are no exception.

Science fiction may spur images of sentient robots living seamlessly among us, but the reality is also remarkable, in unexpected ways.

At Northwell Health, AI is revolutionizing not only the practice of medicine but also good health far beyond hospital walls, enabling providers to analyze healthcare data through complex algorithms. When coupled with advanced technology, it makes possible what was once thought impossible.

Many clear examples of the impact of digital advancements are found in the operating room. For instance, surgeons have taken advantage of robotic capacities to consistently execute repetitive tasks with systems such as the da Vinci robot.

The term “robotic surgery” is a misnomer, because our human surgeons still perform the operations. But rather than stand directly over the patient, depending on the procedure, they can now sit at a console in the OR and control finely tuned robotic “arms,” while viewing high-definition, real-time video of the treatment field.

Terry Lynam: Robotics, AI set the healthcare pace.

These capabilities have become so refined, and the digital tools so advanced, that complex surgeries – such as removing a kidney laparoscopically (through the belly button) – have become relatively routine. Robotic surgery now provides minimally invasive alternatives to many complex operations, including hip replacements and prostatectomies.

Benefits include laser-like specificity through much smaller incisions. This means less postoperative pain, a lower risk of infection, minimal scarring, decreased blood loss, reduced recovery time and earlier discharge from the hospital compared to traditional “open” surgery. In fact, patients often don’t require an overnight hospital stay following certain robotic procedures.

Another example of cutting-edge technology (pun intended) is the EndoWrist, by da Vinci systems distributor Intuitive Corp., which mimics the movements of a human wrist, but with an even greater range of motion. Cardiac surgeons at Northwell often use the EndoWrist system to perform surgery through tiny incisions, rather than cutting through a patient’s breast bone (“cracking the chest”) to operate.

“Complete autonomy is where all of this is headed,” says Louis Kavoussi, Northwell’s chair of urology, who doesn’t mince words about the future of robot-assisted surgery.

A trailblazer in enhancing surgical possibilities with robots, Kavoussi is working with a team from Hofstra University’s Fred DeMatteis School of Engineering and Applied Science to create a completely autonomous suturing robot and other projects that will one day make robotic surgeries as common as taking an aspirin. Their innovations could also extend lifesaving capacities to military settings and other situations where getting to a hospital is impossible.

Meanwhile, Northwell Health’s AI-powered bilingual chat tool helps ensure that patients stick to their care plans after a hospital stay and flags developing problems for care navigators, without increasing costs. And it can also enhance the efficiency of electronic health records, enabling more one-on-one patient-physician interaction.

Artificial intelligence can analyze complex data in MRI scans, calculate cervical cancer diagnoses and more accurately detect early stages of numerous diseases. We’ve seen one of Google’s ventures in medical technology complement mammogram-based diagnoses with AI algorithms that recognize patterns and interpret images.

Healthcare can never be satisfied with the status quo. Advancements in technology have already had a positive impact in our field – improving people’s health by enhancing what’s possible – and they always will.

Terry Lynam is a senior vice president at Northwell Health, New York State’s largest healthcare provider and private employer.