The COVID-19 pandemic has been a bump in the road for developers of digital surgical systems that include robotics, but the technology is still in demand. That was the message from industry leaders at the Advanced Medical Technology Association’s Virtual Medtech Conference.

“We’re seeing more enthusiasm than ever for our digital platforms and for robotics,” said Liane Teplitsky, vice president and general manager for worldwide robotics at Zimmer Biomet, based in Warsaw, Ind.

Hospitals remain interested in these systems, Teplitsky said, because of the potential for improvements in both efficiency and patient outcomes. The key during COVID-19 has been working with hospitals to acquire the technology in “unique ways,” she said.

“We’re looking at different methodologies around the world to ensure that we can get robotics into the hospitals, and I think that that will continue in the long term,” Teplitsky said.

Other panelists agreed that COVID-19 is unlikely to change the trajectory on robotics adoption in the surgical suite over the long-term.

“The appetite for digital health care, the appetite for automation, and the appetite for robotics will just continue to grow,” said Andrew Ekdahl, Worldwide President of Joint Reconstruction for Depuy Synthes, part of Johnson & Johnson. “I think the market for all of these innovative technologies will continue to be, I think, very strong.”

In the short-term, he said the impact has been variable around the world with some orthopedic markets seeing almost no slow down, while other regions saw procedures unrelated to COVID-19 virtually shut down or significantly slowed. Additionally, with many hospitals experiencing a strain on their capital budgets, it has difficult for them to adopt new technologies.

Market Drivers

One reason to expect the robotics industry to keep advancing in the surgical space is that it is in demand from patients.

“Patients are, particularly in the United States, looking for how technology applies to their health care,” Ekdahl said. “And robotics, as well as automation and digital applications, are something that they look for when selecting their location to be treated. What they’re really looking for is the most sophisticated treatment options for them, as part of what they’re looking for in a hospital or a surgical procedure.”

About 20% of surgical patients report being dissatisfied after their surgical procedure, Teplitsky said, and part of the issue is that their results are subjective. “We need to bring objective measures into the OR to really improve our patient outcomes and robotics does this,” she said.

Robotics also help with pre-operative planning, exact implant placement and efficiency, she said.

“Everyone is looking for efficiencies,” Teplitsky said. “If you can make procedures more predictable as we go forward and take some of the surprises out, I think that’s going to be a huge differentiating factor as you go forward in those places that have technology or don’t have technology.”

The use of robotic technology offers the ability to make procedures faster, but also more predictable, by leveraging the preoperative data and the robotic technology. “You can basically do a virtual case before you even get in there and plan for the exact implant that you want and the position of it. You walk in and hopefully have much fewer surprises,” she said.

Todd Usen, chief executive officer at Boston-based Activ Surgical, stressed the ability of robotics technology to improve patient safety by providing surgeons with more data “in real time.” He compared the capability to adding data-based safety features to cars, such as backup cameras and lane-change sensors. “All this is, is data for the driver,” he said.

When it comes to surgery, the Activ Surgical technology, for instance, uses wavelengths of light to visualize blood flow and identify critical anatomical structures without dyes.

In the future, Usen said Activ wants to aggregate data from tens of thousands of surgeons and load it into digital platforms to support other surgeons around the globe. The idea, he said, is to be able to provide the same data that top surgeons have, to any surgeon around the globe.

“Every specialty, no matter what it is, whether it’s orthopedics, whether it’s general surgery, whether it’s urology, there are what’s considered the world leaders and the most experienced physicians,” Usen said. “But all the data and all the information shouldn’t lie in those physicians. Why can’t we take their data and information from the best surgeons in the world and program that into some machines, and in this case robots, to make sure that things are data driven?”

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