Founder of both InTouch Health and Computer Motion, Dr. Yulun Wang is considered one of the fathers of modern surgical robotics. Originally a graduate of University of California, Santa Barbara, Dr. Wang developed AESOP (Automated Endoscopic System for Optimal Positioning), the first FDA approved surgical robot, and the ZEUS Robotic Surgical System. ZEUS was used in the world’s first telesurgery procedure, known as the Lindbergh Operation, back in 2001. Both AESOP and ZEUS systems predate the well-known da Vinci surgical system developed by Intuitive Surgical following its merger with Computer Motion in 2003.
A current and former member of a number of boards, including the Partnership for Artificial Intelligence and Automation in Healthcare (PATH) and the American Telemedicine Association (ATA), Dr. Wang is a proponent for the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to improve healthcare quality, lower cost, and increase access to care.
Medgadget had a chance to ask Dr. Wang about his view on trends in healthcare and how technologies like AI and telemedicine are transforming the industry today.
Medgadget: How has the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in healthcare evolved since you developed some of the industry’s first medical robots at InTouch Health and Computer Motion?
Dr. Yulun Wang: The area of artificial intelligence in healthcare has really taken off in the last few years. Computer Motion started 30 years ago in 1990, and for over 20 of those years there was very little commercial success or activities happening in the area of AI. But in the last five years, there has been a tremendous acceleration of people using AI to help solve problems in the healthcare industry.
Many applications of AI are impacting healthcare, some of which are making changes to a variety of industries, while others are specific to health. For example, one of the biggest applications impacting all industries is speech recognition. Speech recognition is everywhere: we are constantly talking to our phones, talking to Siri and Alexa, and talking to things in our regular environment, but now there is an effort to apply this technology to the healthcare industry.
Applications more specific to healthcare include vision and image analysis. Specifically, there is quite a bit of AI happening in radiology: reading images to scan for tumors, looking for lesions, finding anomalies in images or X-rays, CTs, and MRIs. In the area of strategic planning, different academic centers are using AI to follow the pathway of a patient treatment to track and create algorithms to better treat patients, for example, if this “X” happens treat the patient in “Y” way. In robotics, AI is continuing to be applied in healthcare for applications such as decision support. InTouch is working on concepts like the use of chatbots which are able to triage a patient when they are first looking for care.
Medgadget: Where is AI making the biggest impact in healthcare today? What are some examples of how healthcare processes, costs, or outcomes have improved as a result of the use of AI?
Dr. Wang: On the clinician cost side, I am working on applying AI to automate documentation of billing the physician’s patient consultation notes. It has been well documented that for every hour of patient care a physician conducts, they spend one to two hours on documentation. That is hugely inefficient and contributes tremendously to the lurking physician burnout crisis. Physicians love taking care of patients, but the bureaucratic aspects of their jobs — documentation, the back and forth with insurance companies in order to get paid — need to be streamlined through technological advances, such as AI.
If you can use AI to automatically document the encounter in a qualified way where it prevents the need for insurance companies to question the bill, and you can bill automatically, we can dramatically improve efficiency, cost, and physician well-being.
Medgadget: What about telemedicine? Where is telemedicine making a significant impact in healthcare today?
Dr. Wang: Telemedicine is making a significant impact on healthcare today in many different ways. One example is tele-stroke. InTouch Health will do anywhere between 150,000 to 200,000 tele-stoke consults this year. When we started working in telemedicine, stroke was the third leading cause of death and the number one leading cause of long-term disability in the United States. Now stroke is the fifth leading cause of death. Telemedicine has played a big role in reducing those numbers. Psychiatric health, trauma, cardiology, neonatology, primary care, and pediatrics are examples of other areas where telehealth is making a significant change.
With virtual care, instead of going to the emergency room or urgent care, patients can now communicate with doctors virtually, which greatly improves patient access and convenience while lowering cost. In a sense, virtual care is being layered over the healthcare system in the same manner that the online banking system is layered over the top of the brick and mortar banking system. When I was younger, I used to have to go into the bank every time I needed to do a transaction. Now I rarely need to go to the bank – most of my banking can be done virtually, and that is the direction the healthcare industry is moving. I suspect over 50 percent of healthcare will be delivered virtually in the coming years.
Medgadget: Are there intersections between the growing fields of AI and telemedicine? How do the two technologies align to bring value to the healthcare system?
Dr. Wang: If a doctor holds a patient consultation via telemedicine, the entire interaction is digitized, allowing AI to be applied in a way that it could not be during a typical in-person consultation. In-person consultations aren’t guaranteed to be captured by a microphone and video meaning it is difficult to apply that concept such as auto-documentation.
I’ll give you an example based on something InTouch has been working on: With a telemedicine interface integrated with AI data, physicians will be able to detect patient vital signs automatically using algorithms in the telemedicine interface. We’ve been building this using data collected from virtual consultations and our hope is that it will open the door for new possibilities in doctor-patient interactions.
During the annual InTouch Health Telehealth Innovation Forum, I gave a presentation that takes a deeper dive into the intersections between AI and telemedicine.
Medgadget: Can you share a little about PATH (Partnership for Artificial Intelligence and Automation in Healthcare) and the work the organization does promoting AI throughout the healthcare industry?
Dr. Wang: PATH is a relatively new organization that was established to explore the intersection of AI, robotics, and telemedicine in healthcare. At PATH, we are continuously working to foster and encourage dialogue among people and organizations regarding the intersection of these technologies for the advancement of healthcare.
Medgadget: Thank you for your time, Dr. Wang. Finally, are there any other promising healthcare technologies or trends you’re excited about seeing come to the forefront of the industry in the coming years?
Dr. Wang: I think the other trend hitting critical mass right now is surgical robotics. Recently, we’ve received requests to help companies, like Intuitive Surgical, network all of their surgical robots, which will improve AI capabilities and open a number of other doors. With all of the data from the surgical robots being funneled into a common cloud, companies will have the opportunity to apply AI to a variety of new use cases. It’s a very exciting time for surgical robotics.