From one point of view, surgery is a fairly barbaric means of improving your health. After all, your body is cut open, organs are moved around or removed, and doctors probe with their fingers and use instruments to repair damaged tissues. But these practices are in the midst of significant change.

At last year’s Exponential Medicine conference in San Diego, Dr. Catherine Mohr, Vice President of Medical Research at Intuitive Surgical, took the stage to address how emerging technologies are reshaping medical practice. “We’re talking about the future of intervention. When we look at where things are going in the future, it’s always a good idea to understand what we’re doing now and where we’ve come from.”

Mohr provided a historical walkthrough of the advances that have increased longevity.”We have been intervening with our health care for a very, very long time,” she said. “Surgery has been going on for tens of thousands of years. We see evidence from archaeology of surgical procedures that were done on patients and they’ve lived afterwards.”

Beginning with Egyptian surgical methods, Mohr proceeded from improvements in public health such as sanitation and access to clean water, through the age of antibiotics, and into the era of modern medicine, highlighting an amazing achievement in public health: Within a century, a life expectancy of over 50 years progressed from just a few countries to almost every country in the world.

She added, “In this last 50 years or so, we have been making huge strides in both the kinds of surgical therapies we can provide and the imaging that we can do to support it.” Essential to surgery will be the ability to analyze the streams of data that will increasingly be available and make data-driven decisions for care.

Mohr outlined three pillars of medical care that technologies are improving:

  1. Prevention — enhancing wellness with the goal of reducing intervention
  2. Diagnostics — improving detection so that actions can be taken earlier and often
  3. Intervention — reducing the scale of need by providing care earlier and more precisely

One disease that Mohr expects new technologies to drastically disrupt our approach to care is cancer. She explained that because of improved methods of detection and imaging, cancerous tissue will be identified when it’s the size of a pea. The impact on surgery will be the elimination of “big reconstructive surgeries.”


Within a century, a life expectancy of over 50 years progressed from just a few countries to almost every country in the world.


So what is the future of medicine? What will digitizing surgery actually mean?

Mohr says that doctors will be “shifting more into the spare parts business.” She continued, “As we get rid of cancer, we unmask the issues causing our bodies to sag and tear and wear out. The replacement of these parts is maintenance.” Additionally, she noted that in the near term, advances with new instruments and the ability to insert robotic instruments through a very small opening in the body, the future of intervention will be defined by diagnostics driven by regenerative medicine and high-tech implants coupled with artificial intelligence and big data.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

I've been writing for Singularity Hub since 2011 and have been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. My interests cover digital education, publishing, and media, but I'll always be a chemist at heart.

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