Medtronic’s Hugo to expand on AI with robotic surgeries

Robotic assisted surgery systems such as Medtronic's coming Hugo are looking to leverage AI to help guide procedures, reduce errors and speed recovery times in the future. (Medtronic)

Today, only 3% of surgeries worldwide are performed robotically, but the technology is expected to expand with help from artificial intelligence (AI) and a profusion of image data.

“We are at the beginning of yet another transformation in healthcare technology,” said Bob White, EVP and President of the Medical Surgical Portfolio at Medtronic. Fridley, Minnesota-based Medtronic, with operations in 150 countries, has made a commitment to development of robotic-assisted surgery, an extension of a long history of medical technology innovations going back 70 years to a co-founder’s invention of the battery-powered pacemaker.

Among its latest innovations is Hugo, a robotic-assisted surgery system, to be deployed “in coming weeks” in a clinical procedure for the first time, White said in an email to Fierce Electronics.

Medtronic engineers inside the company’s 90,000-employee work force built it from scratch. Experts believe Hugo will rival Intuitive Surgical’s da Vinci.

In the future, AI could be used in a robotic surgery scenario to correlate high-resolution images of tissues seen in a surgical field with a massive database of images. Navigating through the body and applying video of the experience with AI software could help surgeons gain insights about a disease.

Emerging AI surgical systems could even be trained to automatically detect if a surgical device goes out of view of the surgical scope during a procedure and stop the device from activation, thus avoiding inadvertent injury. The Hugo system includes Medtronic’s Valleylab FT10 energy platform that senses tissue at 434,000 times a second to automatically deliver a consistent tissue effect during blood vessel sealing and related procedures.

Robotic-assisted surgeries are known to lead to fewer complications and shorter hospital stays, allowing patients to return more quickly to normal activities. “We’re excited about the potential for data and AI to inform decision making and reduce surgical variability,” White said. “We believe it has an important role to play in identification of vital structures, providing information not visible or knowable to the user, reducing or eliminating human error, and over time automating certain decisions or tasks.”

Medtronic is also using AI in its next-gen PillCam technology under development. The capsule is the size of a vitamin and takes pictures of the GI tract to help doctors identify abnormalities, even colorectal cancer. Those images will get compared with an image database of normal tissue and lesions, to spot lesions in a patient and to reduce the number of images a doctor reviews.

Already on the market is Medtronic’s Touch Surgery Enterprise from Digital Surgery, a system for recording, storing and sharing surgical video. That data store helps build up the resources needed to advise doctors for future procedures. Medtronic acquired Digital Surgery in February 2020, gaining its Touch Surgery mobile app now downloaded to 3 million users. That acquisition was intended to strengthen Medtronic’s robotic-assisted surgery technology.

Early in the pandemic, Medtronic even teamed up with Intel to make ventilators needed to treat COVID-19 patients. They introduced a new remote management capability for a ventilator to allow clinicians to adjust ventilator settings outside of the ICU and away from the patient to reduce exposure.  An interesting side-effect of the pandemic and physical-distancing policies is that patients have shown wider acceptance of telemedicine, which will likely boost acceptance of remote surgery as well, according to one prediction in a recent MIT Technology Review Insights paper.  

“At Medtronic, we know nothing can replace clinician judgment in patient care. However, we have a significant focus to identify opportunities within AI, machine learning and sensor technology,” White said. “They all have the tremendous ability to unlock the potential of data, providing actionable insights to guide clinical decisions and empower patients.”

“The application of data science, whether built into a device or leveraged in a managed care offering, may be today’s biggest opportunity for technology to advance chronic disease management. We still see a huge opportunity to bring and AI and data-enablement to the solutions we deliver and to healthcare systems in general,” White said.

Editor’s Note: Medtronic’s Bob White will deliver the keynote to open Fierce Medtech Innovation Week at 11 a.m. EDT on Monday, April 26.  Registration is free. Presentations for the entire event are streamed online through Wednesday, April 28, and will be available later on-demand.

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