The exciting future of tele-presence for remote surgery

FierceHealthIT highlights an example of telemedicine that I think is right on the money. A University of Pittsburgh team has trained hundreds of surgeons on procedures at the base of the skull. Most of the surgeons are from abroad, and when they get back home they often have questions. Some can be answered by email, but others need a more interactive approach.

So the Pittsburgh team has walked at least two surgical teams (including one in Slovenia) through procedures using telepresence –basically high bandwidth videoconferencing that is like being in the same room. I like how the Pittsburgh surgeon characterizes it:

“Our goal is not to try to teach someone to land an airplane who’s never flown an airplane before. …we’re trying to get them to the next level.”

This kind of approach can go a long way toward improving the quality of care and building bonds among an international network of surgeons. This approach is still in its infancy, which is why it’s newsworthy.

But technology doesn’t stand still, and we are not far from the time when there will be very little difference between being somewhere physically and being there virtually. For now, the surgeon in Pittsburgh is just explaining what to do and maybe using some illustrations. But there’s no real reason why they won’t soon be able to pick up a surgical instrument remotely and use it to operate.

I wonder how that will change the dynamics. Will the Slovenian surgeon feel as comfortable asking for help if it means the Pittsburgh surgeon ends up performing a key part of the operation? How will the economics of that work? And to what extent will patient needs be paramount versus surgeons’ egos and financial incentives?

Overall I’m optimistic. But I’ll be really excited when patients can be operated on routinely by surgeons in other parts of the world. And that includes the possibility of a Slovenian surgeon operating on someone in Pittsburgh if that makes the most sense.

July 30, 2012

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