Surgical navigation is on the verge of a huge leap forward as technology augments human skill.
The lack of access to surgical care is a significant global challenge, affecting approximately 4.8 billion people worldwide. In the U.S. alone, the American Association of Medical Colleges estimates that we’ll lack as many as 30,000 surgeons in the next decade.
This stark disparity emphasizes the urgent need for surgical equity, not only in low and middle-income countries but also in high-income nations like the United States. The shortage of surgeons, as well as the considerable time investment required for surgeons to attain expertise in their field, poses a barrier to meeting the increasing demand for surgical services. However, there is hope in the form of investment in artificial intelligence (AI) to fill this gap.
AI and an array of new sensor technologies can serve as invaluable support systems for surgery, offering guidance and assistance to surgeons at every stage. Technology can also expedite skill development, reducing the time needed to achieve proficiency. Ultimately, AI can democratize access to surgical expertise and ensure standardized, high-quality care for individuals worldwide.
Health care spending in the United States is a runaway train that is projected to consume 20% of the nation’s gross domestic product by 2026. It strains budgets for governments, businesses, and consumers. Enter AI – an innovative path forward that holds immense promise. The most promising area for technical innovation in surgery is in the area of navigation, which allows a surgeon to see their instrumentation in relation to a patient while performing a procedure.
Think of it the way GPS guides a driver in the car. The current state of surgical navigation is closer to a paper map or Mapquest, where static images taken prior to a surgery are used to guide the surgeon. The challenge is this telemetry is frequently out of date before the surgery even starts. A patient’s body moves as it is brought to the operative theater. This requires additional x-rays or imaging to be taken during surgery, adding time, risk and cost to the surgery. Current surgical navigation is the equivalent of a surgeon stopping to look at a map or ask for directions.
Just as GPS allowed us to make trips more efficient and direct in our cars, surgical navigation will do the same for surgeons, augmenting human technique. Immersive 3-D renderings of the operative field within the surgical suite provide surgeons with unparalleled visual insights and significantly enhance surgical precision. According to a recent report by McKinsey and Harvard researchers, the broader implementation of artificial intelligence in health care has the potential to save the United States up to $360 billion per year. As health care spending continues to pose challenges, the integration of AI technology offers a beacon of hope, paving the way for a more efficient and effective health care system.
AI-driven surgical navigation and imaging technology have emerged as powerful tools for enhancing surgical outcomes. By providing surgeons with real-time, high-resolution imaging and precise guidance, AI-driven technology enables greater precision and accuracy during procedures. AI-guided surgical navigation will make a good surgeon great and a great surgeon dramatically more efficient. This benefits patients with faster recovery and decreased postoperative risks and allows more surgeries to be performed – the ultimate surgical equity.
AI technology in health care extends beyond the operating room and into the realm of data insight. By extracting and analyzing vast amounts of patient data from the black box that is the surgical operating room, AI algorithms can identify patterns, predict outcomes, and assist surgeons in making informed decisions. AI is removing imprecision, meaning rework, patient discomfort, and time and money from the surgical experience. With intelligent data insights, a higher volume of accessible, high-quality surgery with guaranteed outcomes and results can become available globally.
This data-driven approach helps optimize treatment plans, minimize complications, and improve overall surgical success rates. It can also expedite the on-ramp of surgical training, providing guardrails to a process that normally takes decades to perfect. By harnessing the power of data, AI technology empowers surgeons with valuable insights, enabling them to deliver personalized and targeted care to patients, leading to better outcomes and improved patient satisfaction.
As it stands, it takes seven to nine years for surgeons to fulfill the 10,000 hour rule requirement and complete optional fellowships. Additionally, research suggests that there is such wide variation in surgical skill levels among practicing surgeons that it can account for up to 25% of the variation in patient outcomes. Couple this demand for surgeons with the fact that analyst reports show a significant increase in interest in elective surgical procedures from pre-pandemic levels as indicated by internet searches.
To bridge this gap, technologies that can make surgeons more efficient are of paramount importance. AI-powered surgical systems streamline workflows, enhance surgical precision, and reduce the complexity of procedures. By enabling surgeons to operate more efficiently, AI technology not only improves patient outcomes but also addresses the shortage of surgical professionals, ensuring that more patients can receive timely and high-quality care.
The integration of AI and sensor technologies such as light field in surgical care holds tremendous potential for transforming the health care landscape. By serving as invaluable support systems for surgical training, these technologies offer guidance and assistance to surgeons at every stage of their careers, enhancing surgical capabilities and expediting skill development. This not only addresses the pressing need for surgical equity and standardized care but also contributes to improved surgical outcomes and patient satisfaction.
The efficiency and precision provided by AI-powered systems help bridge the gap caused by the shortage of surgeons, ensuring that more patients can access timely and high-quality care. As we move towards a future where health care becomes more accessible, precise, and efficient, investment in AI and light field technology paves the way for a transformed health care system that benefits individuals worldwide.
Alan Cohen is a general partner at DCVC, focusing on an array of AI-enabled health tech, energy, security, and enterprise opportunities transforming industries. In addition to serving on the boards of DCVC portfolio companies Proprio, Reach Power, and Fulfil, he works across the portfolio on product/market fit, go-to-market strategy, and executive leadership development. Prior to DCVC, he was an executive at four successful startups.