PBS Nova Documentary Explores Advances in Bionic Limbs and Surgical Techniques

“We’re going to be able to give people limbs that are not made of flesh and bone, but carbon, fiber, and metal. There’s going to be a time, at some point in the future, when it’s not going to make a difference what you’re made out of.”

Hugh Herr, Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at the MIT Media Lab, and co-leader of the Yang Center for Bionics at MIT.
Image Credit: PBS, Nova, Matthew Orr, STAT

Last week, PBS aired a documentary film directed by Matthew Orr, formerly of STAT News (Boston Globe Media) and now on the faculty at Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University. “Augmented” shows how a climber, Hugh Herr, became an MIT biophysicist whose work developing brain-controlled prosthetic limbs has benefited people all over the world—including Jim Ewing, a climber friend from his early days. This in­cludes the de­vel­op­ment of the kind of ver­sa­tile pros­thet­ics that en­abled Mr. Herr not just to re­turn to rock climb­ing but ex­cel fur­ther at it—mod­u­lar feet and ad­justable leg shafts that al­lowed him to climb in places, and across sur­faces, that might have been im­pos­si­ble be­fore he was in­jured. Here’s a link to the trailer for the film:

Video Credit: PBS, Nova

The more fu­tur­is­tic ob­jec­tive of “Aug­mented,” how­ever, is reached dur­ing the story of Jim Ew­ing, a rock-climb­ing ac­quain­tance of Mr. Herr who has be­come the name­sake of a sur­gi­cal tech­nique de­vel­oped by Mr. Herr and Matthew Carty, a sur­geon at Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hos­pi­tal in Bos­ton.

“Hugh Herr, Matthew Carty and their teams at MIT Media Lab and Brigham and Women’s Hospital have developed a new approach to amputation that has the potential to vastly improve the lives of countless patients.”

Matthew Orr, Director, “Augmented”

Dr. Carty points out in the film that am­pu­ta­tion had been a pro­ce­dure that hadn’t ad­vanced since the Civil War. As “Aug­mented” illustrates in sev­eral straightforward and co­gent ways, the stan­dard re­moval of a limb and the use of skin and mus­cle to cre­ate a stump thwarts the natural mes­sag­ing from the brain. By redi­rect­ing the trau­ma­tized nerves and mus­cles into a pros­thetic that chan­nels the mes­sages properly (this is, ad­mit­tedly, a sim­pli­fied ex­pla­na­tion), the brain can con­trol the pros­thetic. Mr. Ew­ing, who suf­fered a fall from a cliff face in the Cay­man Is­lands and even­tu­ally was go­ing to lose a foot, be­came the first am­putee to un­dergo the process that Mr. Herr and Dr. Carty developed.

The long-term hope for the procedure is that people with Ewing amputations will be able to further adapt to the bionic limbs shown in the film, which Herr’s team is developing at MIT. When the film shows Ewing wearing a bionic foot, Carty explains how it mimics an attached limb through electrodes that send signals back and forth between the man and the machine. The foot is, for all intents and purposes, controlled by his brain. More testing is needed on the bionic leg, but a version of the device could be publicly available in a few years.

Video Credit: Brigham and Women’s Hospital

“It’s a tremendously exciting time to be caring for patients with severe limb injuries. Up until very recently, we aimed to restore patients to their pre-injury state. In the not-so-distant future, patients with amputations may be able to regain full function, and maybe even become better than they were originally.”

Matthew J Carty, Surgeon, Division of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, Brigham and Women’s Hospital

The end of the documentary shows Ewing returning to the site of his injury. Outfitted with a bionic foot specifically designed for the sport, Ewing confidently scales a cliff. Later, in a TED Talk, Herr introduces Ewing as “the first cyborg rock climber.”

Video Credit: TED Talks

Despite Ewing’s improved quality of life, the documentary points out that the ethics of this emerging technology are murky. In the film, a bioethicist, Keisha Ray, raises questions of equity — who will get access to the advanced limbs? This issue is brought into sharper focus when it becomes clear that people could use these bionics “to run faster, to jump higher, to do all kinds of things that you can’t even imagine today,” as Herr opines in the film.

“You’d be able to maybe even go beyond innate human abilities. That’s exciting, and also a little scary.”

Matthew Orr, Director, “Augmented”

The team recently held a virtual event where key players in the film talked about their research and experiences and looked forward to what’s next. You can watch a recording of that event from STAT here.

It’s sci­ence-fic­tion, ex­cept it’s not fic­tion, and the sci­ence is made ac­ces­si­ble in Mr. Orr’s fas­ci­nat­ing documentary. As of November 2019, the below-knee operation has been performed on 20 patients. The research team has received funding to develop the procedure for arm amputation as well. The researchers predict that adapting the Ewing procedure for the upper limbs could be a game-changer for patients who need arm amputations. Like the original Ewing procedure, the upper-limb amputation procedure aims to similarly link muscle pairs to better enable prosthetic control, preserve limb volume and eliminate neuropathic pain. Together with MIT and Walter Reed Army National Military Medical Center, Dr. Carty and his clinical team are recruiting patients for a three-year elective upper-extremity amputation clinical trial. With funding from the Department of Defense, the team has performed three surgical simulations at Walter Reed and New England Donor Services.

If you haven’t seen the documentary yet, you can watch it on the PBS Video app. Or, if you are a PBS subscriber you can watch it using PBS Passport. Either way, it’s the best hour I’ve spent watching TV in a long time.

Podcasts I Enjoyed Listening To This Year

“Podcasting might be thought of as a form of academic gift.”

Les Back, Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London
Image Credit: Shutterstock.com

Last week I shared a list of some of my favorite books this year. Since podcasting has become an important channel for information sharing and learning, I thought I’d add a list of my favorite podcasts in health care and technology for your consideration. But first, some recent stats on the popularity of podcasts in general.

Ross Winn shared some interesting statistics for 2021 on his Podcast Insights website. There are currently over 2 Million podcasts available, with over 48 million episodes as of this writing. 55% (155 million) of the US population has listened to a podcast – up from 51% in 2019. Podcast listeners listen to an average of 7 different shows per week, up from 5 in 2017. 80% listen to all or most of each episode, down from 86% in 2017. Podcast listeners are much more active on every social media channel (94% are active on at least one – vs. 81% for everyone).

So, with so many options to choose from, how do you select ones to listen to regularly? My first criteria are the credentials of the host. I want respected professionals in the field, not someone who’s doing this as a sideline. Second, I look at the quality of the guests on the podcast. Can the host attract excellent guests every episode? Finally, I look at the topics being discussed. Are they interesting? Do they add credible information to the conversation, or are they simply a rehashing of what’s already out there? So, with those as my guideposts, here are my favorite podcasts for 2021:


Sg2 Perspectives – OK, I’m admitting my bias right up front. I enjoy the episodes my former colleagues at Sg2 post weekly. I get to continue to learn from Sg2 experts and member health system executives on a wide range of topics.


Creating a New Healthcare with Zeev Neuwirth, M.D. – An award-winning and internationally recognized bi-weekly interview series for leaders interested in comprehending, connecting with, and contributing to the consumer-oriented, value-based transformation of healthcare. Dr. Neuwirth and his guests hit the mark in every episode. His guest list is impressive, and the topics he covers are critical for success in today’s dynamic health care environment. In addition to his podcast series, you might want to grab a copy of his book Reframing Healthcare: A Roadmap For Creating Disruptive Change. It’s a fantastic read.


Fixing Healthcare with Robert Pearl, M.D. & Jeremy Corr – Fixing Healthcare is a “podcast with a plan” to solve the American healthcare system’s biggest problems. Launched in August 2018, this monthly show is a co-production of Dr. Robert Pearl and Jeremy Corr. Fixing Healthcare is currently in its sixth season. This time around, they are flipping the show’s format on its head. Instead of asking each guest for a plan to fix the entire healthcare system, they’re going vertical and deep—searching for solutions from those who represent the system’s various parts. You’ll hear from those who lead and represent doctors, nurses, insurers, drug companies, hospitals, entrepreneurs, and others. In addition to the podcast, you might want to check out Dr. Pearl’s latest book: Uncaring: How the Culture of Medicine Kills Doctors and Patients. It’s a sobering look inside the culture of healthcare.


Device Talks Weekly – The DeviceTalks Weekly Podcast series delivers news, insights, and commentary from Medtech industry leaders. Their podcasts are intended to inspire MedTech professionals to create better MedTech devices and companies. I had the opportunity to be a guest on this podcast series and enjoyed talking with Tom Salemi, one of their hosts. Timely information and insight for the MedTech community.


In the Bubble with Andy Slavitt – By now, you probably see a pattern here. A lot of my book recommendation authors have jumped into podcasting too. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I’d be interested in listening to their podcasts. Andy Slavitt, President Biden’s Senior Advisor on COVID-19, is back from the White House to his chair on the award-winning In the Bubble podcast. This show is an insider’s guide for getting closure on what has happened throughout the pandemic so far, how we emerge, and what must come next. Special guests include leaders we rarely get to see drop their guard the way they do on this podcast. Andy gives listeners information and inspiration from his bubble every Monday and Wednesday.


Sway with Kara Swisher – Power unpacked. “Sway” is an interview show hosted by Kara Swisher, “Silicon Valley’s most feared and well-liked journalist.” Now taking on Washington, Hollywood, and the world, Kara investigates power: who has it, who’s been denied it, and who dares to defy it. Every Monday and Thursday. I’m a huge Kara Swisher fan. I love the way she holds tech giants’ feet to the fire and makes them squirm in the big red chair. Tough but fair, Kara covers all the critical tech issues you need to understand.


Pivot, hosted by Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway – Did I mention that I’m a big fan of Kata Swisher? So what could be better than one podcast? How about two podcasts featuring her! Every Tuesday and Friday, Kara and NYU Professor Scott Galloway offer sharp, unfiltered insights into the biggest stories in tech, business, and politics. They make bold predictions, pick winners and losers, and bicker and banter like no one else. Putting these two together is golden.


So, those are my top seven podcasts for the year. I hope you find one or more of them interesting and informative. If you have a favorite health care or tech podcast that I’ve missed, drop a comment below and let me know what you’re listening to these days. Thanks for reading!

The Death of Expertise? – COVID scientists & Health Officials in the public eye need protection from threats.

“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

Isaac Azimov
Image Credit: Shutterstock.com

I’ve been holding off on posting this for over two weeks now (primarily because of the Azimov quote at the beginning). But these Tweets describing recent comments by Florida’s new political Surgeon General Joseph Ladopo, and Peter Navarro calling Dr, Fauci “the most evil man I ever met” finally pushed me over the edge:

Image from H. Soch’s Twitter Timeline, 10/21/2021
Image from H. Soch’s Twitter Timeline, 10/22/2021

My original intended post follows:


A few weeks ago, I posted an article on this blog about Medtwitter and the personal attacks being leveled at highly respected medical professionals in the public arena, many of them for the first time. Every day, researchers are interviewed in the media, advise policy-makers and write social media posts. They might be discussing the latest coronavirus data, explaining and interpreting new research, or commenting on government policies. Some are now as recognizable as celebrities. For many, the attention has had unpleasant consequences.

Nature has surveyed a subset of researchers who have spoken to the media about COVID-19 and found that 47 people — some 15% of the 321 respondents — had received death threats and that 72 had received threats of physical or sexual violence.

Image Credit: Nature analysis

In response to other survey questions, the researchers who reported the highest frequency of trolling or personal attacks were more likely to say that it had affected their willingness to speak to the media in the future.

Image Credit: Nature analysis

But the examples cited around COVID-19, although sobering enough on their own, reflect a general trend that has been accelerating in recent years – an attack on expertise of any kind. While expertise isn’t dead yet, it’s in trouble. We do not just have a healthy skepticism about experts: instead, we actively resent them, with many people assuming that experts are wrong simply by virtue of being experts. And it doesn’t help when anyone can attach titles like “subject matter expert” or “thought leader” to profiles on social media sites like LinkedIn or Twitter.

Lest you think I’m exaggerating here, I highly recommend you read an excellent book by Tom Nichols titled “The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters.” In the book, Nichols shows how this rejection of experts has occurred: the internet’s openness, the emergence of a customer satisfaction model in higher education, and the transformation of the news industry into a 24-hour entertainment machine, among other reasons.

“I fear we are witnessing the death of the ideal of expertise itself, a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laypeople, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers—in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all.”

Tom Nichols, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters

Nichols’ assertion is never have so many people had so much access to so much knowledge and yet have been so resistant to learning anything. Americans now believe that having equal rights in a political system also means that each person’s opinion about anything must be accepted as equivalent to anyone else’s. The issue, Nichols says, is not indifference to established knowledge; it’s the emergence of a positive hostility to such knowledge. This is new in American culture. It represents the aggressive replacement of expert views or established knowledge with the insistence that every opinion on any matter is as good as every other. This is a remarkable change in our public discourse. And when this trend is applied to medicine and public health, the results can be disastrous.


My take – Intimidation is unacceptable on any scale, and the Nature survey findings should be of concern to all those who care about scientists’ well-being. Such behavior also risks discouraging researchers from contributing to public discussion — which would be a huge loss, given their expertise, during the pandemic. Taking steps to support scientists who face harassment does not mean silencing robust, open criticism and discussion. The coronavirus pandemic has seen plenty of disagreement and changing views as new data have come in, as well as differing stances on which policies to adopt. Scientists and health officials should expect their research to be questioned and challenged and should welcome critical feedback that is given in good faith. But threats of violence and extreme online abuse do nothing to encourage debate — and risk undermining science communication at a time when it has never mattered more.

Who Do You Trust? Musings on Trusted Online Resources in Health Care Technology

“Trust takes years to build, seconds to break, and forever to repair.”

Dhar Mann, Entrepreneur and Filmmaker
Image Credit: Shutterstock.com

In my news post last Saturday, I featured an article on YouTube’s effort to partner with several health systems around the country to provide credible, authoritative information on health care to combat the massive disinformation prevalent on the Internet today.

That article got me thinking about how one goes about identifying trusted health care resources online and how best to answer a question that I often get: “what resources do you use in your work?”

The best advice I can offer on how to identify trusted resources for health care information online, and that I use myself is to follow the guidelines from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Their factsheet outlines twelve questions to ask yourself when evaluating a website that posts health care information:

  • Who runs the website?
  • Who pays for the website?
  • What is the website’s purpose?
  • What is the original source of the website’s information?
  • How does the website document the evidence supporting its information?
  • Who reviewed the information before the owner posted it on the website?
  • How current is the information on the website?
  • How does the website owner choose links to other sites?
  • What information about users does the website collect, and why?
  • How does the website manage interactions with users?
  • How can you verify the accuracy of the information you receive via email?
  • How does the U.S. federal government protect consumers from false or misleading health claims posted on the internet?

As for the second question, I’ve made a conscious decision to use social media only for finding, curating, and reporting on reliable, credible information on health care technology. I don’t use my social media presence to share personal information, political discourse or opinions, or as a platform to attack others online.

A comprehensive list of the resources that I’ve built up over the years is way beyond the scope of a blog post. But here are some of the best resources I use regularly and recommend highly if you want to source the best information on health care technology or care delivery.

News Aggregators – I use two news aggregators daily: Flipboard and Apple News+. The AI algorithms built into these two do the best job in seeing what I read regularly and recommending other articles that might be of interest based on my reading preferences.

Health care news reporting – My go-to sources for quality health care news are STAT (Helen Branswell’s ongoing reporting on the COVID crisis has been the best in the business, in my opinion.); Business Insider Healthcare; Mobihealthnews for all the news on digital health; AuntMinnie for all things medical imaging; and the BBC Health news to get an international perspective on what’s going on in health care.

Future health care – One of the fun parts of my work is to look out into the future and try and predict what health care will look like 10-15 years from today. To help me formulate what I should be looking at in this space, I rely upon The Medical Futurist Institute (Dr. Bertalan Mesko and his team are outstanding, and I’m a Patreon supporter of their work); The Exponential Medicine Conference (Dr. Daniel Kraft is the Medical Director and worth following in his own right); and Futureloop, a newsletter developed by Dr. Peter Diamandis (another physician worth following).

Health care research companies – My go-to resource in this area has been and continues to be CB Insights. The quality of their research is outstanding. And their analysts in health care are among the best around the industry. They are a subscription service, and the cost is pretty steep. My former employer had a subscription, and I used it extensively in my research and writing. I will miss having access to their complete portfolio of services, but many of their briefings are free and available to anyone without a subscription.

Podcasts on health care – A treasure-trove of good listening available online. First on my list is Sg2 Perspectives (OK, I know I’m biased here), where I can continue to learn from my former colleagues and members. My other regular weekly stop is In the Bubble with Andy Slavitt. Great interviews with health care leaders, movers and shakers, and government officials. I’ve long admired the work that Halle Tecco has done in health care. So, when she recently started a new podcast series, The Heart of Healthcare, I immediately added it to my list. My final two regular weekly podcasts are Creating a New Healthcare with Zeev Neuwirth and Fixing Healthcare with Dr. Robert Pearl.

Recommended reading – Earlier this month, I posted an article with my Summer reading recommendations. Here’s a link to that post.

The Twitter-verse – Let’s face it, most of what’s on Twitter is a cesspool of garbage. But what I’ve found after being on Twitter since June 2013 is that with a bit of work (blocking and muting most of the abuse and invective), health care Twitter can be a rewarding investment of my time. First, I’ve been able to “meet” and communicate with health care leaders that I would never have had the opportunity to meet in person. Second, there’s no way that I can read all of the critical health care articles and research that are published weekly/monthly. By following the right physicians, they do the reading and identification for me – a great example of the power of crowdsourcing information in health care. Finally, connections I’ve made on Twitter have carried over to my other social media platforms like LinkedIn, YouTube, and now Clubhouse as well. So, I guess my message here is don’t dismiss Twitter as a potential source of information or contacts. It can work for you if you do it right.

I hope that the suggestions that I’ve made are helpful to you in building up some resources of credible health care information. If you have other recommendations, please drop them in the comments below. I’m always looking for additional sources of good information to add to my growing portfolio. And if you have any suggestions for other topics to cover, drop them in the comments as well.

Thanks for reading!