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AI in Medicine Must Prioritize the Other ‘A’: Augmentation




AI’s tantalizing promise – and its missteps – are more apparent than ever, as OpenAI’s ChatGPT makes headlines for its ability to cheat on college exams or conduct an imposter job interview. But, for anyone who feels inclined to dismiss AI’s potential, I would urge caution.

Bill Gates called recent developments in AI “every bit as important” as the emergence of the internet – a statement that should draw the attention of innovators across every discipline. In the field of healthcare, our relationship with AI has had a mixture of successes and setbacks, particularly in applications for diagnostics.

To maximize our successes and realize the potential of AI, we must make a distinction between “artificial intelligence” and “augmented intelligence” to deliver meaningful change to our healthcare system. The difference between “artificial” and “augmented” may feel pedantic to some, but medical device innovation requires precision in everything we do.

Artificial vs. Augmented

Artificial intelligence implies a substitute for human intelligence – a notion that ChatGPT embraces wholly with a chatbot that can answer simple questions or even write essays with a few inputs. In contrast, augmented intelligence works alongside humans to support their decision making.

In robotic-assisted surgery, for instance, the goal of augmented intelligence is not to replace the skill and expertise of surgeons, honed over years of experience and thousands of repetitions. Those skills and experiences are precisely what augmented intelligence can leverage to improve the standard of care across any provider facility, including community hospitals, large health systems, ambulatory surgery centers (ASCs) or office-based labs (OBLs). AI platforms can provide real-time feedback during surgical procedures, pulling from a vast database of prior procedures. They rely on the surgeon’s skill and decision-making ability to create recommendations for procedural maneuvers and can even evolve best practices for how to complete some procedures. There is nothing “artificial” about a procedural recommendation based on a maneuver from a real surgeon in a real surgery.

Augmented intelligence is the right approach for improving health outcomes in surgical procedures because it reduces variability across hospitals, health systems, ASCs and OBLs. Any patient anywhere in the world can receive the highest standard of care with platforms that empower informed decision-making.

Technology to preserve our surgeons

Against the backdrop of a major physician shortage in the U.S., we must find ways to slow the retirement rates that spiked around the pandemic and attract young people to the medical field, and augmented intelligence can play a role.

Manual surgeries are physically and mentally taxing – often contributing to ailments such as orthopedic injuries that can drive surgeons to early retirement. The physician population is also aging – more than 40% of active physicians will be 65 or older by 2030. Sitting in an ergonomic chair and equipped with insights to perform every surgery to the best of their ability, surgeons may extend their careers with augmented intelligence platforms. The taxing nature of manual surgery can also severely limit the number of procedures one surgeon can complete in a day. Making the procedures less demanding can help to close the gap between the number of patients who need surgeries and the number of physicians who can perform them.

Relative to the excitement of Silicon Valley and big tech, a career in medicine may feel uninspiring. By incorporating augmented intelligence, machine learning and other cutting-edge technology to the medical field we can make the profession more appealing to younger generations. Finding ways to attract the digital-native generations to healthcare and maintain a pipeline of talent is critical to our success.

Artificial intelligence is not a one-size-fit-all solution and nearly every industry will feel its impact. In healthcare, the most meaningful and disruptive change will come from AI that is built to augment our surgeons, not supplant them.

Anthony Fernando is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Asensus Surgical, a medical device company that is digitizing the interface between the surgeon and patient to pioneer a new era of Performance-Guided Surgery™.