Catherine Mohr AIH 2019

Essay

Driving Technological Innovation When You Don’t Need to be in the Driver’s Seat

  • June 24th 2014

Dr. Catherine Mohr is director of medical research at Intuitive Surgical, where she evaluates new technologies for incorporation into robotic-assisted surgical systems. She will be a speaker on two panels on Wednesday, June 25 (Products That Save at 1:20 pm MT and The New Dawn of Disruptive Technologies at 2:40 pm MT) during the Festival’s Spotlight: Health, June 24-27, 2014.

The intersection between technology and medicine presents great opportunities to improve the human condition. But how can we be true innovators in medical technology? How can we continually narrow the gap between what we want to do for patients, and what we can do for them?

We might be deceiving ourselves if we think developing new technologies will help achieve our goals. The reality is that it is relatively uncommon for medical research to lead to the development of fundamentally new and significant technologies. More often, the consumer and military worlds drive development, leaving the medical industry to follow, leveraging and repurposing these new technologies where it can. We shouldn’t resist this reality – we can still be creative and achieve great successes within it.

We have seen this repurposing be successful across the full spectrum of medical devices, from the simplest cotton bandage to the most complex robotic-assisted surgical system.

Cloth bandages are an essential wound care technology, yet it would have been laughable to imagine that consumers’ demand for bandages would end up driving the worldwide development of the cotton gin, innovative looms and genetic research leading to higher-producing strains of cotton. Yet when these happened because of other economic drivers, the medical world and patients benefitted.

We benefit in a similar way with medical and surgical robotics. Intuitive Surgical came about as part of a wave of innovation in computing power, miniaturization of electronics, and improving sensors that were developed in the commercial and military sectors. Through a novel application of these technologies, we are now bringing minimally invasive surgery, using the da Vinci® Surgical System, to procedures where open surgery had been the norm. While enormous ingenuity, design talent and hard work went into the system’s development, almost all of the component technologies and key manufacturing processes had been developed for other, considerably higher-volume applications.

Understanding that we, in the medical field, are usually not the drivers of the important technological innovations, but rather identifiers, adopters and repurposers of technology, has important implications for how we should approach our work. 

The primary lessons we should take from this realization are to always look for what’s next, to play with other people’s toys, and to keep starting over. Technological leaps are constantly driving new innovations – from 3D printing to nanotechnology – that will profoundly affect our abilities to solve old problems in new ways. It is tempting to just move forward with tools that are familiar and to invest in developing the new technologies that we need from scratch. It feels safe to be driving the change. 

If, instead, we are willing to keep starting over – continually pulling out the old problems we have failed to solve before, and re-attacking them with new technologies that become available from other fields, we open new doors. We have the chance to create revolutionary and disruptive innovations in the medical field – even when relegated to technology’s passenger seat.

The views and opinions of the author are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Aspen Institute.

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