My career as a spine surgeon and researcher has spanned multiple decades, yet I continue to marvel at the progress with which this field of medicine continues to make considerable strides for our patients. From the first spine surgery in the late 1800s to the first minimally invasive lumbar disc procedure in the early 1900s and many innovations since then, mine is a field that never stops bettering itself for the patients who need us.
Most of what you’ve likely heard about Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning (a subset of AI) is possibly relegated in your mind to a Sci-Fi realm of technology that is computer-based at its most basic level, and perhaps downright frightening when you hear big-tech analysts discuss its intricacies. The most simplistic definition of AI is that it uses machine learning and computers to imitate the human mind in making decisions and solving problems.
As such, AI is paving the way for the type of innovation in spine surgery that will help our patients get the exact care they need, delivered with incredible precision, to the specific area of the spine where they need it, all while allowing for minimal invasion and faster recovery. It remains in the infancy stage, but the power and promise of AI in spine surgery are right here in front of us.
In the Diagnosis of Spinal Conditions – AI shows great promise in helping healthcare providers achieve more accurate and timely diagnoses of spinal conditions. Using predictive-modeling type AI applications, the ability to amass loads of clinical data and predict which patients may end up developing spine conditions is advantageous. As with most medical issues, the earlier the diagnosis, the earlier the intervention – before problems become catastrophic.
In the Surgical Treatment of Spinal Conditions – When coupled with robot-assisted spine surgery, which is already in use, AI has the potential to predict which patients might benefit most from surgical intervention and can also help the precision and skill of surgeons when performing spine procedures. The predictive accuracy of AI in the operating room also offers the potential to help reduce surgeon fatigue. In many cases, most spine surgeries are relatively long – four hours or more.
In the Prediction of Spine Surgery Outcomes – AI offers the potential for scientists and statisticians to predict spine surgery outcomes based on a patient’s unique health metrics and circumstances. For example, the result of the same spine procedure on a 46-year-old sedentary female may not be the same or may be accompanied by additional considerations as the one performed on a 75-year-old active male. AI can help spine surgeons analyze the data available on both populations. In turn, spine surgeons can have honest conversations with their patients, and patients can make well-informed decisions about their spine surgery and health care decisions.
In the Recovery and Return to Daily Living for Spine Surgery Patients – With addiction to opioid pain relief medication at an all-time high, one of the timeliest promises of AI is in the prediction of which patients will need post-operative pain management, how much they will need, and which medications are best. As a spine surgeon, I must ensure my patients can manage their pain well after surgery. Yet I don’t want them to become addicted to the medication tools I prescribe during their healing. There is a delicate balance between just right and too much when it comes to pain medication. I am excited about the potential of AI to help pinpoint the right spot on the pain management continuum so that my patients can recover well without future risks of harm from pain medication.
While we might be a way off from harnessing the most potent potential of AI in all of the above areas of spine surgery, I am confident we will get there. Spine surgery research as it relates to AI is more proliferate than it was even five years ago, and if I know one thing about the history of spine surgery and the tenacious researchers behind it – where there is a will, there is a way.