The 'world's most watched surgeon' on hospitals of the future

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Cancer surgeon and futurist, Professor Shafi Ahmed, is known as ‘the world’s most watched surgeon.’ It’s after he began broadcasting his tumour removal operations so that students around the world could watch his every move and learn from his techniques. 

Over the past few years, he’s livestreamed operations on national television as well as in 360 degree virtual reality video (hence his title: Virtual Surgeon) and also wore Snapchat spectacles throughout another procedure - recording and broadcasting clips as he progressed through the op.

Shafi is a 3x TEDx speaker and has delivered over 250 keynote speeches in 30 countries

Shafi is a 3x TEDx speaker and has delivered over 250 keynote speeches in 30 countries

“Healthcare needs disruption, we know that. My role is really to reimagine it and re-educate about how healthcare might be functioning in the future,” he told me in healthHackers® episode 38.

As well as being a multi-award-winning surgeon working at The Royal London and St Bartholomew’s Hospitals, Shafi is a health tech entrepreneur, a 3x TEDx speaker, has delivered over 250 keynote speeches in 30 countries, was awarded four honorary PhDs and is enthusiastic about reshaping the way surgeons of the future are trained.

“Teaching surgery hasn't changed or evolved over many, many years. We have medical students or other students in our operating theatre and they are there for 8/10 hours a day,” but he told me, “they're often in the back of the room on their smartphone… so they're actually doing different things and they spend a lot of money for the privilege of being in that room.”

This is one of the reasons why he began filming his surgical operations so that medical students around the world could view them immersively in real-time using affordable virtual reality headsets.

“You could get a Google cardboard headset, which costs - what, $5 or so? - maybe less, a smartphone - which is ubiquitous, and an app that's free. So for a very small price you access learning through a points-of-view approach to see what the surgeon is watching at the same time and then actually interacting with that environment

In 2014, Shafi carried out an operation wearing  Google Glass

In 2014, Shafi carried out an operation wearing Google Glass

In 2014, he carried out an operation wearing Google Glass - a pair of glasses that include a tiny camera and allow the wearer to see notifications on the inside of the lenses.

“When I had the glasses on… students around the world could watch on their smartphones wherever they were. I had great pictures of people on the beach; my students watching it.

“They could actually text a message, so the messages they were texting on their phone to me would pop up in my glass in the corner.  As I was operating I would look up and answer at the same time,” he said.

Shafi referred to today’s society as “the one click generation,” citing an example of how frustrating it is if our Uber taxi can’t get to us for as long as 25 minutes, yet we wait weeks for an appointment with a doctor, or even a whole year for an operation in hospital

“Healthcare is far more important than a taxi,” he told me. “So we will reverse the mindset, make it more immediate - which we can do, of course, with technology.”

Design image of the Shafi Ahmed Martin Dockweiler University Hospital in South America

Design image of the Shafi Ahmed Martin Dockweiler University Hospital in South America

“I tell people this is really an exciting time to be alive, probably the most amazing time that I've ever experienced as a doctor.

“This whole concept of the fourth health revolution… is allowing us to think in a different way.”

Officials in Bolivia have been so impressed with Shafi’s work, they sought him out to help develop “the hospital of the future” using $100m of investment. They’ve even named the hospital after him.

The kind of tech you can expect to feature inside this hospital includes: virtual reality, augmented reality, simulation rooms, voice technology, facial recognition, and image recognition.

“AI companies will allow you to diagnose a chest X-ray, for example, using an AI algorithm that's better than a single radiologist but comparable to two radiologists”

He told me that currently a patient has to wait about a week for chest X-ray results but that with a specific algorithm “it will be able to show you the X-ray, the details, the diagnosis within a millisecond. And that could ultimately be put into your smartphone straight away, saying ‘this is abnormal, go and see a doctor’“. 

I asked him about the prospect of robotic surgeons

In the future, doctors could virtually “drag in” avatars of other experts from around the world to help advise on procedures

In the future, doctors could virtually “drag in” avatars of other experts from around the world to help advise on procedures

“Within the next 20 years, no question, we’ll see robots doing part of the operation,” he said, as well as “even replacing” some procedures. According to Shafi, “that’s just around the corner.”

Shafi’s also experimented with holographic teleportation. Oh yes. It’s a thing. Imagine a hologram of an expert you need to speak to popping up in your vision, answering your questions, then disappearing again.

“I managed to holoport myself using the Microsoft HoloLens system remotely

“And in fact, about a year ago, in the operating theatre at the Royal London, we used a special software on the HoloLens and during the operation I could drag in experts from New York and from Mumbai in India... into our operating theatres,” as avatars, he explained.

“A lot of things we can do, we can do remotely. We've got to get away from this thing about being together in the same place at the same time.

Shafi’s holographic image during his trial with virtual teleportation

Shafi’s holographic image during his trial with virtual teleportation

“Someone could just literally pop in from, say, America, in front of you as a hologram - give you a diagnosis, see what you are doing, and disappear again.

That's a far more efficient use of time and energy,” he told me. 

As a cancer surgeon, I asked Shafi about the difficulty he must regularly face when tasked with telling a patient they have cancer. 

“I break bad news every Tuesday.

“There’s no question, it touches you. You walk away after and it kind of makes you very solemn at the end of the clinic. You think about the world as whole and your role and what’s going on with healthcare.”

As a cancer surgeon, Shafi has to break bad news to patients every week

As a cancer surgeon, Shafi has to break bad news to patients every week

Imagining a robot delivering that kind of news might seem ridiculously heartless - but Shafi suggests will we see robots with empathy one day. 

“We’re not quite ready for them to replace the doctor in breaking that bad news but I think we’re not too far off from having an empathic doctor kind of robot that people actually accept as being as good enough as a doctor.”

Links that Shafi mentioned in this interview:

Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/professor-shafi-ahmed-7114a260/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/ShafiAhmed5

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/virtualsurgeon/

Website: https://www.professorshafiahmed.com/

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/colorectalsurgeon1