Physician anesthesiologist at Stanford at Associated Anesthesiologists Medical Group
Richard Novak, MD is a Stanford physician board certified in anesthesiology and internal medicine.Dr. Novak is an Adjunct Clinical Professor in the Department of Anesthesiology, Perioperative and Pain Medicine at Stanford University, the Medical Director at Waverley Surgery Center in Palo Alto, California, and a member of the Associated Anesthesiologists Medical Group in Palo Alto, California.
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The February 2020 edition of Anesthesiology, our specialty’s preeminent journal, published an article on robotic anesthesia.1

The accompanying editorial by Dr. Thomas Hemmerling was titled “Robots Will Perform Anesthesia in the Near Future.2 The author wrote: 

I have no doubt that closed-loop (i.e. robotic) anesthesia is at least as good as the best human anesthesia. And that, for me, would be good enough to use it every day.”

The primary study by Joosten1 looked at the performance of multiple closed-loop systems for administration of anesthesia in 90 patients undergoing major noncardiac surgery in a single center in Belgium. The conclusion of the study was that the automated system outperformed manual control, as there was minimal but significantly better cognitive function in the patients one week after surgery when the closed loop control was used. 

A BIS monitor

The depth of anesthesia was measured using a BIS (bispectral index) monitor. A BIS electrode was applied to each patient’s forehead and temporal regions to capture the frontal electroencephalogram (EEG) from the brain. 

three Base Primea infusion pumps

In the closed-loop (automated, or robotic) group, two infusion pumps were used to deliver target-controlled intravenous infusions of the hypnotic drug propofol and the narcotic remifentanil, in order to maintain BIS values between 40 and 60. BIS values between 40 and 60 have been shown to correlate with adequate anesthesia depth.

In his editorial, Dr. Hemmerling wrote:

“Robotic anesthesia, defined as anesthesia delivered by an automated control system, will soon be available. It is my opinion that closed loop devices will become available in the United States . . .  

One of the changes our profession has gone through is an ever-increasing demand to multitask, be it by running more than one operating room, or by simultaneously performing administrative or teaching tasks. In addition, the number of parameters to monitor has also increased. It is therefore not surprising that one of the common denominators of studies comparing closed loop control versus manual control is the finding that humans change a given target infusion rate far less frequently than closed loop devices do.

I have no doubt that the practice of running more than one operating room, common in the United States but less so elsewhere, will soon be an international standard. Closed loop devices will allow us to maintain a high standard of quality independent from the amount of physical presence.

Robotic anesthesia delivered in Washington by Dr. Smith would essentially be the same as robotic anesthesia performed in Chicago by Dr. Miller. . . . 

I think technology will advance similar to what we have seen and see in the car manufacturing industry. First, there was manual transmission, then automatic transmission, double clutch systems, navigation systems, all sorts of safety assist systems…soon, there will be self-driving cars.

How will we do anesthesia in the future? It is 2030 and I am scheduled to supervise anesthesia for a 40-yr-old patient undergoing laparoscopic cholecystectomy.

In the operating room, I tell my robot—let’s call it A-bot—about the surgery, the patient, and the type of anesthesia I would like performed. “Can I get a propofol, remifentanil-based anesthesia? Can we target 45 as a Bispectral Index? A-bot, can you maintain mean arterial pressure around 65? Can you maintain cardiac index during surgery of more than 2.5 l · min–1 · m–2? A-bot, I would like to use rocuronium, bolus application is good enough, but please keep neuromuscular blockade lower than 25% at all times. Please choose a respiratory rate of 12 and adjust tidal volumes to maintain end-tidal carbon dioxide of 32 mmHg in 50% air! Let’s provide preemptive analgesia using morphine and ketorolac—usual dosages, A-bot, you know.”

A-bot answers: “Sure will, Tom—you keep me informed about surgical progress?”


When I look at all the literature, including the fine work by Joosten et al.,1  I have no doubt that closed loop anesthesia is at least as good as the best human anesthesia. And that, for me, would be good enough to use it every day.”2

In 2019 I wrote an editorial that robotic anesthesia was coming.3 And as I wrote the novel Doctor Vita 4 over a 15-year span from 2004-2019, I became more and more convinced of the role technology will play, for better or for worse, in replacing the human element in patient care. The premise of the novel is valid.

Will artificial intelligence in medicine provide the world with healthcare workers who work simply by plugging them in? Will some form of Doctor Vita populate future operating rooms?

An editor in the world’s leading anesthesia journal has predicted it. 


  1. Joosten, A, Rinehart, J, et al. Anesthetic management using multiple closed-loop systems and delayed neurocognitive recovery: A randomized controlled trial. Anesthesiology. 2020; 132:253–66.
  2. Hemmerling TM. Robots will perform anesthesia in the near future. Anesthesiology 2020: 132:219-220.
  3. Novak R. “Artificial Intelligence in Anesthesia and Perioperative Medicine is Coming.” EC Anaesthesia 5.5 (2019): 112- 114. 
  4. Novak R. Doctor Vita. All Things That Matter Press, 2019.


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