Touch Surgery’s Jean Nehme: Digital Technology is Actually Making Healthcare More Human
It isn’t something an industry creates or a company can sell — it’s something that belongs to each and every one of us. As human beings, we own our own health. Or do we?
I’m Colette Balaam, CEO of Hive US, Kin + Carta’s healthcare agency. I’ve spent 20+ years in the healthcare industry, exploring ways in which emerging technologies can empower today’s physicians, hospitals, health systems, and most importantly, patients. And this is what our Luminaries series is all about: empowerment.
I’ll be picking the brains of various titans, mavericks, and influencers across healthcare that are paving the way to more accessible, human-centric care. Throughout this series, my colleagues and I will be asking the difficult questions and discovering what makes these luminaries tick.
With that, I’m so excited to introduce our first healthcare luminary, Dr. Jean Nehme. Jean is the co-founder and CEO of Touch Surgery, an award-winning surgical simulation platform, or as he recently coined it, the “Google Maps” for surgery. Jean has been featured in the likes of Forbes, TechCrunch, VentureBeat, and the Financial Times, for his unwavering dedication to bringing about a safer, scalable future for surgery across the globe.
Here’s what he had to say about the responsibilities of being a leader, how consumerization has affected patients’ expectations, and why digital technology is just one part of the answer.
COLETTE BALAAM: You didn’t originally start your career in technology. Can you explain what inspired you to go into the digital field and start Touch Surgery?
JEAN NEHME: I started out in surgery and my background is clinical. The way I like to describe it is that surgery is all about cutting things out and removing them or putting them back together. So if you think about it, we are problem solvers. And being within a healthcare system, you gain a really amazing inside perspective and opportunity to see the problems within healthcare. This is what triggered myself and my colleague Andre [Chow] to start thinking about what we could do to improve things. We both just happened to be very passionate about technology and got excited thinking about ways technology can aid and help solve some of these problems.
CB: As Touch Surgery has grown exponentially over the years, what are your current objectives and goals as you lead the company into the next stage?
JN: I tend to think of a “CEO” role in a few ways. Of course, there is the ability to have a line of sight and vision that is guiding everything the organisation does towards a clear well-defined objective, but you also need to have two lenses: an internal lens and an external lens.
The internal lens is one in which you set a very clear North Star and bring people along with you to set company goals, achieve objectives, and inspire and build the culture.
The external lens is when you look out to the marketplace to continually identify and realize opportunities that support the team and yourself to be able to iterate and refine your business.
CB: To some extent, your customers are ever-reaching in terms of the products and tools that you’re sharing and building for them, so in your perspective, what will it look like to be one of your customers in the next five years?
JN: In the future, the patient may become more aware of us as a company, but today, we live in the background and the pockets of surgeons and surgical teams.
Where we would like to be in the next five years is a system that is digital in its nature, but helps these teams optimize and deliver a standard of care that addresses their biggest frustrations, from operating rooms being ready to support the surgical process and the actual procedure.
From a patient’s perspective, they need to better understand and be aware that the surgical team has the most optimal surgical technology to receive the best procedure. I think today, technology like robotics is very tangible, but in the future algorithms and artificial intelligence software will become a more tangible part of the surgeon’s toolbox.
“…technology like robotics is very tangible, but in the future algorithms and artificial intelligence software will become a more tangible part of the surgeon’s toolbox.”
CB: And those technologies, whether used today or in the future, include a mix of mobile applications, software, artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and so forth?
JN: Yes, we have a mobile and a VR/AR product that is supporting training, but we’ve also got a ton of AI and computer vision algorithms that are able to predict and understand surgical processes in real time.
Last year we were the first group to put out an AI algorithm in real-time in the OR. It sounds very Sci-Fi when I describe it, but it’s an ability of a computing system, through purely just a camera feed, that predicts what a surgeon’s doing and suggests the next step in their workflow. We started off training surgeons and surgical teams on surgical processes and we have been using that data to train computers and computing systems on the same surgical processes.
This technology is going to be in many surgical procedures by the end of this year, and ultimately we think these computing systems are going to work side-by-side with the surgical teams to reduce risk and standardize quality overall.
CB: That’s pretty huge. It seems as though you and your team are ultimately “disrupting” the surgical industry as we know it. What do you think are the biggest challenges and opportunities in the healthcare industry in today’s current digital world?
JN: The opportunities are huge. The very interface of care is changing. I will tell you that in my group of friends, probably 10 out of 10 people will search for their symptoms on Google and read a bunch of potential diagnoses before they even see a physician. And as people, we have become so in tune with consumerism in almost every part of our lives: from the delivery of groceries to being able to get a car anywhere, any time, to having access to as much entertainment as we want, etc. That consumerism has driven a patient expectation that is just mismatched when it comes to healthcare. You expect that same level of care.
Beyond that, there’s a continuous need to simply make healthcare better. And the way that we’ve traditionally done that is by leveraging science and research. But going forward, there are lots of questions about how to better leverage data and gain access to a wider population sample size to use for some really powerful research and studies.
Now I don’t think the opportunity is going to be completely fulfilled by digital technologies, but rather a combination of technology and systems. It’s a question of how we build policies and systems that can respond to these demands. Today, it takes a long time for a technology of any kind to become a de facto norm or a defining technology in any healthcare system because they aren’t fast or adoptive. So we need to really think about how we can better use technology to advance the systems ability to deliver on the needs of their population.
“I don’t think the opportunity is going to be completely fulfilled by digital technologies, but rather a combination of technology and systems. It’s a question of how we build policies and systems that can respond to these demands.”
CB: On that note, there’s a lot of talk and interest around startups going big and full throttle, whether or not they fail, but I think there is a different way of looking at things from a healthcare perspective because of the industry and ecosystem needing to be more measured in terms of development. How do you discern the difference between what is a technology fad versus the beginning of what might be a long-term shift?
JN: I think some of the cultural statements from these companies around the really big things are great, but when you approach healthcare, I don’t think all those stand true. Somewhere between there are two types of folks who have emerged. You’ve got very futuristic-speaking physicians who will paint a great image of healthcare 2.0 or 3.0, versus the folks who are doing research and trying to scientifically measure impact. Somewhere between those two extremes, I think lies the state of where we are at right now.
I’m more of the view that we should talk a lot more about the problems. We should be vocalizing, defining, sharing, discussing, a lot more about the problem of healthcare, and then bringing in technology for the solutions. And I think that just needs to be the way that we approach digital in healthcare.
CB: Absolutely. We talk a lot about all the things that these technologies could do but it’s always important to get back to understanding that experience and the human that’s really at the other end of that care. I know you and I are both equally passionate about this, but how important are the balance of human-centred care and a human in the process when you have your digital thinking cap on?
JN: I’ve had the privilege of being able to sit with people and patients and treat them, and on the receiving end of care, I’ve also had that experience as well. I think what we need to realize is once upon a time, healthcare used to be some sort of magical treatment, the knowledge which lived in the mind of a few, thinking you’d go see someone and they’d be amazing and make it all better, potentially.
I think the shift today is that we are all very much more aware of ourselves and of healthcare as a component of our existence, not just being how well the machinery that is your body works, but also your mind and your general makeup of your social outlook. And so if healthcare is such an important component of us, then we definitely have to be way more holistic in terms of thinking about how every individual in a way owns their own health.
“If healthcare is such an important component of us, then we definitely have to be way more holistic in terms of thinking about how every individual in a way owns their own health.”
This is exactly what the whole space of public health care is about, it’s about empowering each and every one of us to own our health and giving ourselves the tools to do so. Digital is a really easy and democratizing way of doing this. We’re all becoming more aware of the things that we do to keep ourselves healthy and I’m very pro-empowering the individual to holistically be able to manage their health.
CB: What is your personal mission or goal throughout this journey as it pertains to you, your role, and the industry?
JN: Finding ways to be able to live what we say. Being able to really enjoy health by spending time with my loved ones while positively impacting our team is a challenge. It doesn’t keep me up at night, but it is the thing that I definitely think about the most. What can I do tomorrow? What did I not do enough of today? Those are the two questions I ask myself when it comes down to my family, friends, and extended family: the team I work with.
Follow Jean on LinkedIn.