Digital World: The operating room of tomorrow – today

The technological revolution that in medical care has been going on for some time now.

Dr. Bengt Nielsen311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Dr. Bengt Nielsen311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Despite the promises of scientists, robots have not eliminated the drudgery of housework or the hassle of preparing dinner.
Ever try to clean your floor using one of those robot vacuum cleaners? Case closed – robots are just not ready for prime time.
Not in the home, at least. But in hospital operating rooms, robots are constant companions, “colleagues” that doctors and nurses rely on for a variety of very important tasks. In US operating rooms, for example, some 80 percent of prostate operations are performed in whole or part by robots, as are most oncological-gynecological operations. In fact, some experts say, robot doctors could within several decades outnumber “real” doctors in operating rooms! It’s all part of the technological revolution that in medical care that has been going on for some time now – one that has strong roots in Israel, where many of the innovations used in streamlined, networked and more precise treatment were developed, says Dr. Bengt Nielsen, director of research for GE Healthcare in Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
“Israel is on the top of the list when it comes to new innovations,” he says. “Many of the changes in the industry have been incremental, but there have been a number of quantum leaps – and Israeli has been in the forefront of helping to develop both.”
Nielsen was in Israel recently for a daylong seminar on “The Operating Room of 2030,” held at Rambam Hospital in Haifa. Among the speakers were top doctors, researchers and administrators from Israel and around the world in the areas of imaging devices, operating-room planning, biorobotics and biomechanics (the connection between medicine, devices and patients) and traditional surgery. GE Healthcare has a long history of working with Rambam Hospital, as well as other hospitals and institutions in Israel, Nielsen says, including Sheba Hospital and Tel Aviv University.
GE Healthcare is perhaps best known for its innovations in imaging and MRI systems, Nielsen says, but the company is developing technology that will improve the efficiency and effectiveness of care throughout the entire medical system and bring the operating room into the 21st century.
“Our research center in upstate New York is a good example of how we conceive the operating room in the coming years,” he says. “We have a number of innovative systems that make use of advanced imaging and monitoring methods that will reduce patient risk and the possibilities of medical error.”
For example, GE scientists are exploring computer-based imaging analysis tools for patient samples that analyze microscopic images of a patient’s saliva or mucus from the lungs, to determine their true condition – allowing more efficient processing of patients and more accurate determination of necessary treatment.
Another GE-developed imaging system utilizes a fluorescent imaging agent to localize the margins of a tumor, illuminating the margins with a special light, allowing doctors to get a better look at tumors so they can more confidently treat the entire affected area.
Yet a third imaging system uses fluorescent imaging to to illuminate and label most nerves in the body, a project that recently received a $4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the US.
One technology that combines imaging and monitoring, Nielsen says, “is a miniature camera developed by one of our partners for use in the operating suite. Doctors inject the camera while they are performing surgery, like cancer surgery.
Observers can see the operation online on a nearby computer, with the camera broadcasting the operation in real time.”
Additional observers can help the performing surgeon do a more thorough job, he says, or allow a robot to do the whole job, with the surgeon using the image to observe and control his or her “assistant.”
Any discussion of future medical technology must include the development of nanotechnology, and Israel, along with GE Healthcare, are prime movers in medical nanotechnology development. Tel Aviv University, along with 20 partners from Europe (including GE Healthcare), is working on a project called SaveMe! (, which seeks ways to implement nanotechnology for cancer diagnosis and treatment.
SaveMe proposes the design and development of a novel, modular nanosystems platform integrating advanced functionalized nano-core particles and active agents, to be used for diagnostic or therapeutic purposes.
Nanoparticles could be used for monitoring and imaging, Nielsen says, as well as to deliver drugs – making treatment more precise and hopefully avoiding the need for chemotherapy or other destructive treatments.
While all this technology sounds great, many people are concerned that the advances in medicine will only benefit a few – the very wealthy, as past innovations have – and bypass the poor. Nielsen is concerned too, as is GE Healthcare, which has been trying to develop ways to ensure that the coming medical technology revolution reaches as many people as possible.
“In Europe and Israel, we’re very good at deep-dive research in the early stages of a technology and bringing a completed and tested technology to market,” he says. “But the middle part – the actual testing and development under real-market conditions – is much better done in the US, where pockets are deeper.”
In light of these limitations, Nielsen says GE Healthcare has invested billions in its HealthyMagination program (, designed to help educate people around the world on how to stay healthy – and how to stay out of the hospital altogether.
“A big part of the program is about reducing health-care costs and making it more affordable,” he says. “Half the world’s population has almost no access to health care, and we want to shrink that statistic significantly.”
The project includes development of new, innovative technologies and products (some of them developed in Israel), including a cheap ($500) pocket-sized cardiac ultrasound machine for diagnosis of rheumatic heart disease, an MRI device to check individual parts of the body (head, joints, etc.), mobile fitness apps and a low-cost CT scanner.
“Smart spending and smart saving in health care can and will make a big difference in care levels,” Nielsen says, “and we are very proud to be working with Israeli institutions to achieve this goal.”