Three ways AI can be used to transform surgical procedures

By Charlie Steer-Stephenson
With AI’s ever-increasing contribution to the healthcare sector, AI Magazine explores the three ways it’s set to improve surgical procedures

Alongside the demand for more efficient medical services across the globe, the ever-expanding artificial intelligence (AI) market is set to revolutionise the healthcare sector. 

The use of AI in surgery has taken slightly longer to develop than other medical specialities, due to limited understanding of the surgeon-patient-computer relationship. However, recent technological advancements have demonstrated how further AI developments will be invaluable to improving surgical planning and navigation.

Connecting surgeons around the world with VR

Following the recent success of an incredibly complex separation procedure of craniopagus twins (conjoined at the cranium), the invaluable use of AI in surgery has been proven once again.

Using virtual reality (VR) projections of the twins from CT and MRI scans, the team of surgeons were able to trial different surgical techniques for months in advance of the operation.

For the first time, surgeons across the world practised the complicated procedure together in a digital operating room. This not only allowed them to predict the surgery outcome, but it also meant there was a major decrease in risk for the procedure which had failed for the three-year-old twins multiple times before.

After four years of living in the hospital and nine surgeries (with over 100 medical staff) later, the boys were successfully separated and will now receive six months of rehabilitation.

One of the procedure’s leading surgeons, Noor ul Owase Jeelani, described it as “space-age stuff”.

Neurosurgeon Gabriel Mufarrej, who has cared for the boys for over two years, added: “It was without a doubt the most complex surgery of my career. At the beginning, nobody thought they would survive. It is already historic that both of them could be saved.”

Mr Jeelani is also the founder of the London-based medical charity which funded the procedure, Gemini Untwined. The charity stated the operation had been “the most challenging and complex separation to date” as the boys’ conjoined brains mean they also shared vital blood vessels.

VR has similarly been used in other forms of surgery, such as bowel cancer surgery, giving surgeons the chance to communicate with other specialists across the world in live-operation time. Surgeon Shafi Ahmed said: “The pace of change is remarkable – technology is really shaping and changing the way we provide healthcare very quickly.”

Technological advancements in medical imaging analysis

Another way that AI can enhance preoperative planning is through medical imaging. Visual representations of the internal body are collected via CT or MRI scans, which are then stored as 2D, 3D or sensory images and videos that are studied by doctors and surgeons before or after medical procedures. 

The development of computer vision has been transformative in making the use of visual datasets in predicting surgical risks and outcomes more efficient, as well as enhancing the development of robotics and medical research.

Through techniques such as segmentation, bounding boxes and landmarks, Cloudfactory is a data processing service that analyses and annotates medical imagery that can then be studied by medical staff. 

This is particularly useful in the time-restricted and workload-intensive environment of hospitals around the world, meaning surgeons can spend less time analysing the imagery themselves.

Arterys is another platform that uses medical imaging to improve the efficiency of diagnostics. Available in 100 countries, the AI company uses cloud GPU architecture to improve the speed, accuracy and power of medical imaging. From MRI scans to tomosynthesis (3D x-rays), the Arterys platform allows doctors to access and analyse what they need anytime, and anywhere.

Robotics promises to make surgery more accurate and less risky

The digitalisation of surgery goes hand-in-hand with efforts to improve robotic-assisted surgery. With constant technological developments in the design of modern operating rooms, digital equipment and medical imaging, there is a growing awareness of the uses of machine learning (ML) in surgery.

AI-powered surgical robots do not replace surgeons but instead help them focus during particularly complex parts of a procedure. For example, Asensus Surgical created a laparoscopic AI robot that provides surgeons with live information to help them make better decisions during surgery, as well as analyse surgical performance over time.

Minimally invasive surgery (MIS) has always relied on computer-aided intraoperative guidance. The involvement of ever-evolving AI, therefore, promises the increased accuracy, safety and efficiency of surgery. 

The Da Vinci surgical system is a robot controlled by surgeons performing MIS to offer a better range of motion and 3D viewing of the procedure. 

One impressive application of this is in robotic cardiac surgery performed through minor incisions in the chest. Thanks to precise robot control and minuscule instruments, surgeons are able to use the Da Vinci robot to complete a less risky and more efficient MIS than the open-heart alternative.

The future of the surgeon-robot relationship is an exciting one that promises to transform operational procedures for the better.

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