“Surgery is an art form …”

We are looking forward to meet Hanjay Wang at the Sonophilia Winter Retreat. Hanjay is a young heart surgeon at Stanford University Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery. A trained pianist and conductor, Hanjay is passionate about music and innovation. At the Sonophilia Winter Retreat, he will talk about his creative research on training robots to perform autonomous procedures and using microorganisms to accelerate the healing process after surgery.

Enjoy the reading!

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Sonophilia: Your current research at Stanford University involves – among other things, training surgical robots to perform heart surgery autonomously. How far are you and what’s the opinion of the patients on this?

Hanjay Wang: Currently, we are still very early in the process of building an autonomous robot for use in the operating room. In order to do this, our surgical team is working with experts in robotic engineering and computer vision, using computer simulations in a virtual surgical environment to develop the necessary algorithms to achieve autonomy. Although autonomous robotic surgery remains many years away from clinical application in patients, there is a general sense of wonder and excitement among patients, tempered with an appropriate level of concern, not unlike the public reaction to the arrival of self-driving cars. 

Sonophilia: In many fields people fear robots to take over their jobs but in many cases robots can help us save a lot of time. What would you do with the time won?

Hanjay Wang: Interestingly, robotic surgery is usually not faster than surgery performed using traditional techniques. This may be due to a steep learning curve to use the robot, or sub-optimal robotic instrument design, among other issues. In the foreseeable future, I don’t believe that robots will completely replace surgeons in the operating room. Instead, I think it is more likely that robots will be able to autonomously complete simple sub-tasks such as dissecting, cutting, and suturing tissue, or help the surgeon with identifying and exposing targets of interest, altogether similar to the capacity of a surgical assistant. Some simple surgeries involving removal of diseased tissue may eventually be possible for a robot to perform completely autonomously, but reconstructive procedures such as those done in heart surgery are much more complicated and will require significantly more research time and effort to accomplish. Ultimately, safety is and always will be the first priority.

Sonophilia: You have a very musical background, we even performed Beethoven together back in Harvard a few years ago. How is musical creativity feeding into your current work?

Hanjay Wang: I think there are many parallels between music and surgery that I have noticed after training in both fields. Just as pianists continuously search for better fingerings to manage challenging passages, surgeons continuously optimize their techniques to manage critical parts of an operation. Just as composers constantly seek to find new combinations of sound to express an idea, surgeons constantly seek new technologies to accomplish a procedure more effectively. In this way, the creative process is similar, and this may be why many surgeons describe surgery as an art form. 

Thank you Hanjay! We’re looking forward to your presentation at Sonophilia!