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5 ways next-generation surgical robotics will leverage attention to enhance care

The primary purpose of healthcare technology is to support clinical staff, to help them provide the best care possible. Healthcare technology does this in many ways. Digital transformation, for example, helps to relieve workload. Patient assessments generated by a computer deliver unbiased insights that can help clinical staff to diagnose illnesses earlier and more accurately than manual methods based on experience. Touchless interaction can help prevent the spread of germs and software applications can do smart things like reduce energy consumption, ensure data protection, and enable new safety features — all with lower total cost of ownership.

Technology shifts are constantly taking place affecting different parts of the healthcare ecosystem. In the back end, advances in cloud computing and communication have deepened systems integration throughout the healthcare chain — supporting telehealth and providing access to data at the point of care. In the front end, machine interfaces are becoming less invasive and more intuitive, making it easier for people to use technology. In between, IoT sensor technologies are generating massive amounts of previously unavailable data, which can be put to good use by smart applications.

Surgical robotics is a prime example of how the developments made in a medical technology have enabled digital transformation and improved care. By performing very small incisions with highly-accurate maneuvers, remote-controlled surgical robots have brought about a range of minimally-invasive procedures that promote speedy recovery — which is good for patients, good for hospitals and clinics, and good for everyone else waiting in line.

As surgical robotics technologies evolve, the surgeon’s job has also evolved. Staff no longer operate directly on their patients but sit at a workstation with a display that shows the feed from the surgical camera. This video feed is overlaid with data from a range of monitoring equipment, helping the surgeon to make potentially life-saving decisions. The surgeon’s hands no longer hold surgical instruments, instead they use controls to manipulate OR-equipment remotely.

The shift to remote surgery has given rise to a wave of innovative software applications that do smart things like synthetic coloring of blood flows, catering for the natural tremor of the human hand, and rendering the human body in detailed 3D images — all of which help the surgeon to provide the best care. Next-generation surgical robotics are likely to focus on expanding the applicability of remote surgery and overcoming the challenges of existing technologies, which include lowering the complexity of the surgical workstation and its user interface, enabling learning, and facilitating communication within the OR and with remote experts.

Attention computing enabled by eye tracking technologies can help to address the issues of next generation surgical robotics

Tobii’s sensor technology decodes human attention by transforming head-and-eye biometrics and movements into real-time data streams. Its small form factor allows it to be embedded into the surgical workstation and the data it generates can be used to: 

  • Enhanced remote collaboration
  • Simplify surgical workflows
  • Reduce touch points
  • Ease skills transfer, and
  • Create safety and wellness features

Enhance remote collaboration

Preventing the spread of germs during the coronavirus pandemic accelerated the uptake of remote collaboration and the tools needed to support it — for just about every industry. And while physical distancing during the crisis has been critical, the medical profession has long embraced remote ways of working. Driven by the need to tap into specialist expertise at the point of care, today’s healthcare services rely on real-time communication platforms that support high-definition audio and video. 

For surgical procedures, these platforms deliver video streams from OR-equipment — such as surgical cameras and endoscopes — to remote collaborators. Experts, whether they are thousands of miles away or in the next room, can follow the procedure, control devices, and communicate with OR-staff. In addition to providing access to surgical expertise, these communication systems support infection control because they reduce the number of people that need to be present in the OR.

The addition of eye tracking to surgical robotics technology enhances this kind of real-time remote collaboration because it provides participants — both remote and on-site — with useful information about what the surgeon or remote expert is looking at. Embedded into the surgical workstation, or mounted on a remote display, eye tracking captures human attention without the need for specialized glasses or lenses — helping people to work and communicate naturally, as if they were in the same room.

To point to an area on the screen, the surgeon or remote expert simply looks at it, no need to use a pointing device or move hands from vital controls to touch the screen, or another peripheral.

The eye tracking bubble shows what each participant is looking at.

Simplify surgical workflows

During an operation, surgeons rely heavily on their hands. Even when assisted by robots and seated at an ergonomically designed workstation, the load on a surgeon’s hands remains high. By embedding eye tracking into the surgical workstation, you can alleviate some of that load.

In some scenarios, surgeons need help to move equipment like a camera or change settings such as the intensity of the operating lights. To do this, they often need to instruct clinical staff how and when to move equipment. With eye tracking, these kinds of tasks can be computerized. The surgeon can use their gaze to move the surgical camera to a desired point or look at logical buttons to dim and brighten lights. This kind of digital transformation simplifies surgical workflows by removing the need for communication and allows surgeons to work at pace — it could even lead to fewer staff in the OR.

Reduce touch points

The form factor of Tobii’s eye tracking technology lends itself to most devices and screens, making it possible to embed it into existing system designs.

Because it can be embedded, eye tracking creates a new input modality, without adding more equipment — such as a dial, switch, or specialized hand-operated controller. By replacing physical controls with gaze-activated logical areas on the surgical display, eye tracking reduces the number of touch points on the workstation. Logical buttons can be shown and hidden according to the surgeon’s needs, helping to minimize cognitive load. 

The main advantage for surgeons, however, is that they can keep their hands on the primary controls and remain focused on the procedure. But having fewer peripherals also means less equipment to maintain, sanitize, and protect.

Ease skills transfer

Similar to many other sectors, healthcare has needed to adjust to lack of expertise at the point of need. Remote collaboration has been a crucial solution to address this problem. 

Restrictions designed to prevent the spread of germs during the coronavirus pandemic, however, have further impacted the shortage of expertise because the need for physical distancing has reduced the opportunities for vital on-the-job training. And so, hospital administrations are turning to their communication platforms to enable students to learn. 

Eye tracking can greatly enhance live training because it provides insight into the surgeon’s actions. By highlighting what the surgeon pays attention to, the eye tracking bubble helps students to follow what’s going on and learn how skilled physicians rely on their experience during a procedure.

Create safety and wellness features

Maintaining the safety and wellness of patients and staff is a critical goal of every healthcare service. Eye tracking makes it possible to add new safety and wellness features in surgical robotics.

Before carrying out a critical operation, for example, a surgical robot might first want to verify that the surgeon is paying attention. Eye tracking delivers the necessary data to implement such a control. Other controls such as impairment, cognitive overload, and drowsiness detection can all be developed using the real-time data generated by eye tracking technologies.

In brief

As an enabling technology, eye tracking provides a way to leverage a person’s attention to create gaze-control features that allow surgeons to operate equipment at speed, lower communication needs, and lower the load on their hands. 

Tobii’s technology provides the data to implement safety features such as drowsiness detection or create on/off emergency switches with software, delivering benefits in the form of workstation ergonomics and less hardware to operate, maintain, sanitize, and protect. 

Because it provides useful insight about the events that capture a surgeon’s attention, eye tracking is a fundamental technology for remote collaboration and learning. In short, Tobii’s solutions provide the means to overcome some of the current challenges of surgical robotics technologies. 

Why next-generation surgical systems will include eye tracking - White Paper

For a deeper dive into eye tracking, what it is, and how it can be used in surgical robotics, download our white paper.

For more details

For more information about the application of eye tracking in surgical robotics technologies, drop us a line.

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