Emerging spine technologies include smart technologies, robotics & nano-engineering: Q&A with Dr. Frank Shen

Surface Technology

Frank Shen, MD, division head for spine surgery at the University of Virginia Health System's department of orthopedic surgery in Charlottesville, discusses the big technology trends in spine surgery that will have an impact on the future.

Question: What emerging technology or technique do you think will have the biggest impact on the spine field five years from now?

Dr. Frank Shen: I think that over the next five to 10 years spine surgery will start to incorporate technologies from multiple emerging fields including robotics, advanced imaging techniques, wireless and smart technologies, and nano-engineering just to name a few. We are seeing the application of those technologies in our practices already. Currently, our institution is already utilizing robot-guided technologies to increase the accuracy and precision of what we do in the operating room. In addition, we have been using real-time virtual imaging obtained from intraoperative 3D scans to develop virtual surgical plans and executing the plan intraoperatively. The use of wireless and 'smart technologies' will allow instruments, and likely implants, to communicate with one another seamlessly and in real-time, and will soon become commonplace.

From a basic science standpoint, our research laboratory at the University of Virginia School of Medicine has been developing tissue engineering techniques and nanoparticles to help address challenges associated with large graft defects that can occur during revision spine surgery and developing percutaneous and systemic treatments for addressing inflammation and scars that can occur around nerves due to injury or after surgery. As these technologies advance, it will not be long before we start to combine, and incorporate, them into our clinical practices.

Q: What do you think will fade or disappear from the spine field over the next five years?

FS: Much of what we are doing will continue to exist, however it could evolve to such a degree that it may become slowly unrecognizable. As mentioned above, nano-technology, tissue engineering and percutaneous robotic and image-guided techniques will allow us to continue to decompress nerves, realign deformity and stabilize instability while transitioning away from more traditional open surgical techniques. And as such, it could be easily imagined that this transition to remote surgery would be the next natural evolution of the technology. While this may seem distant in the future, rapid advances make it more likely than ever before.

Q: Where do you see the biggest room for innovation in spine? What do you need to provide better care that doesn’t currently exist?

FS: I think that improved interfaces must be developed between the physician and the patient. For example, currently the EMR acts as a clumsy, and clunky, method for recording and storing medical, social and economic information. Physicians currently must interact both with the patient and the EMR simultaneously. This creates a physician-patient and physician-EMR relationship that is both simultaneous and competing at the same time. The current workaround for this problem is to utilize either third-person scribes or delayed charting, both of which have limitations.

However, we need to develop a different paradigm. One that is more seamless; one where the EMR actually helps to improve and facilitate the interaction and relationship between the physician and the patient. This could be viewed schematically simply as a physician-EMR-patient interface. Whether this is utilizing a handheld iPad, video and audio recording, touchscreen tablets, virtual visits or combinations of all or none of these technologies, it must be realized that medical records are not simply about recording and storing information. A sufficiently advanced medical record should also focus on developing improved techniques for retrieval, sharing and processing of information as well.

I think it is an unfortunate misunderstanding that the EMR is viewed predominantly as a means for storing information. As we move forward, and gather greater and greater volumes of data, we must focus on developing methods for easy retrieval of information as well.

To participate in future Becker's Q&As, contact Laura Dyrda at ldyrda@beckershealthcare.com

For a deeper dive into the future of spine, attend the Becker's 17th Annual Future of Spine + Spine, Orthopedic & Pain Management-Driven ASC in Chicago, June 13-5, 2019. Click here to learn more and register.

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