Google Partners With Johnson & Johnson To Build Smarter Surgical Robots

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Google and Johnson & Johnson have announced a new research partnership focused on developing smarter surgical robots that will outperform existing robots and provide surgeons with new equipment and decision support tools. The deal is subject to federal oversight and is not expected to be finalized until the end of Q2 2015. As is typical with Google partnerships, financial terms were not disclosed.

Research into robotics-assisted surgery took shape in the early 90s, and by 2000 there were a variety commercially available systems entering the market promising improved outcomes and faster procedure times. During the 2000s, robotic-assisted surgery found its way into a number of specialties, including general surgery, cardiothoracic surgery, urology, and gynecology. However, in time practitioners began to note that use of the new systems was not improving outcomes, but was increasing procedure costs. In 2010, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that robot-assisted surgeries were an average of 13 percent more expensive, but that outcomes were not significantly different than traditional procedures.  The results of these studies and others led to the FDA undertaking a fresh review of robotic-assisted surgical equipment, and influential medical associations issuing statements questioning the value of robotics in surgery and calling for more data to support the trend. In 2013, following the publication of an unflattering study on the benefits of robotic-surgery in hysterectomies, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists issued a statement saying “There is no good data proving that robotic hysterectomy is even as good as—let alone better—than existing, and far less costly, minimally invasive alternatives.”

With widespread doubt growing across the industry, there is good reason to believe that there would be an appetite for a smarter surgical robot, but only if independent analysis can demonstrate that its use leads to improved outcomes, reduced costs, or both. To accomplish this, the partnership will reportedly incorporate the same image analysis algorithms used in Google’s self-driving cars to help surgeons navigate the body, and augmented reality tools will be deployed to provide on-screen decision support, such as markers to highlight key pieces of anatomy relevant to the procedure, or abnormal sightings like tumors. Google X, the team behind Google’s smart contact lenses, will be leading the effort.


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