He mentioned IBM’s Watson and a recent paper that appeared in the journal Science Translational Medicine about a robot that can handle and suture bowel.
He asks, “What do you think about the future of surgery?”
Thank you for your email and the link to the paper.
I read the paper and was amused by its title "Supervised autonomous robotic soft-tissue surgery" which is an oxymoron. The definition of autonomous is "acting independently or having the freedom to do so." This “supervised” robot is not really autonomous.
The robot is capable of performing a nearly technically perfect intestinal anastomosis but still needs a human surgeon to open the abdomen, prepare the bowel for the procedure, tidy up, and close. I'm not sure that this is any different than when surgical staplers were introduced. This robot is simply making the operation easier and possibly more precise.
Surgeons will still be needed in case the robot makes a mistake like causing bleeding while placing a suture near the mesentery. If bleeding in that area is not promptly controlled, a large hematoma can develop and possibly compromise the blood supply to the anastomosis. And will the robot be able to decide who needs an operation and when to do it?
One worrisome byproduct of surgical stapling is that many graduates of residency programs within the last 15 or 20 years have little experience in performing a hand sewn bowel anastomosis. What will they do if the hospital runs out of staplers? Soon, I guess they could consult the (somewhat) autonomous robot.
I have written about automation and the erosion of surgical skills. This problem also affects pilots. I have also addressed the concept of robots operating alone. I don't see it happening any time soon.
I think there will always be a need for surgeons. Even the smartest robot is going to have some trouble dealing with a trauma patient who is hypotensive.
The future will take care of itself. In the 1980s, people were concerned about the demise of general surgery. Opinion pieces with titles like “Will the general surgeon become extinct?” and “Is general surgery a dying specialty?” appeared in major journals like JAMA and the World Journal of Surgery.
Then in 1990, laparoscopic cholecystectomy opened the door to a whole new area of general surgery that no one had ever dreamed of.
Good luck with your studies and your surgical career.