Guest blog: Future of surgery: robots and genomics

At a time when pressures on the healthcare system are higher than ever—with challenges for those in need of care and those providing care—a look at advances in technology and medicine currently under development brings up some optimism as to what the future of healthcare might look like.

From artificial intelligence and robotics, to genomics and regenerative medicine, there certainly is enough for any sci-fi enthusiast to start taking an interest in the future of medicine. Of course this future is not exactly around the corner, but it’s probably much closer than most would think. The proof of concept for some of these technologies is very much available—and in some cases already successfully piloted. The NHS provides many examples of pilots and demonstrations of medical and digital innovation. Yet, the main struggle remains the uniform adoption of innovations and new technologies around the country. As financial constraints on the system remain high, for innovations to be considered for wider roll-out they need to deliver, from the outset, financial sustainability and measurable improvements to patient outcomes.

Although the road there might be rocky, for those who wish to hang on to that optimism the future of surgical treatment is one fascinating area to explore. Surgery is a discipline that has seen a fantastic evolution throughout its history. Without delving into what surgery looked like before anaesthesia and antiseptics, even in more modern times cutting patients open remained its focus. In the last few decades, however, developments in technology have made surgical treatment very different, with minimally invasive techniques, fewer cuts, better recovery times and less impact on the patient.

Developments in technology have the potential to take surgical treatment further, resulting in better patient outcomes and experiences, more treatment options for an increasingly older population and better access to treatment.

Surgical robots are already available—if expensively and rarely—as platforms controlled by a surgeon. She or he sits at a console and manoeuvres the multiple robotic arms operating on the patient with greater degrees of freedom and precision. A very new generation of robots, however, is working towards improving affordability, versatility and ease of use, so to extend their availability. Further into the future, the use of nano-robots may become a reality. With developments in imaging technology and the ability to produce robots that are smaller than a hair, micro-robots may enter the system without any incision, deliver a drug to a targeted area or treat a pathology with high precision before being expelled by the body naturally.

Genomics and developments in big data analytics are other transformative areas. With the planned extension in genomic testing across the population and the analysis of the resulting data, the understanding of disease pathways will greatly improve. This will lead to surgical interventions that are preventative, less invasive and targeted to the needs and predicted outcomes of each individual. Data analytics and AI mechanisms may also improve diagnosis and support surgeons inside the operating room.

Finally, in the long-term advances in technologies may open entire new avenues for treatment. These include 3D bio-printing of tissues; artificial organs; prosthetics controlled via electrodes that relay sensory feedback; and gene editing.

Of course, the development and application of all these technologies will only come with substantial effort and investment. Equally, adoption of any innovation and technology will need to be checked for patient safety and its ethical implications debated. However, with the right balance between innovation and caution, advances in technology point to a future where surgery and medicine can become more preventative, predictive and personalised, with huge benefits for patient outcomes and ultimately the healthcare system.

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