Technological innovation in neurosurgery: a quantitative study

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OBJECT

Technological innovation within health care may be defined as the introduction of a new technology that initiates a change in clinical practice. Neurosurgery is a particularly technology-intensive surgical discipline, and new technologies have preceded many of the major advances in operative neurosurgical techniques. The aim of the present study was to quantitatively evaluate technological innovation in neurosurgery using patents and peer-reviewed publications as metrics of technology development and clinical translation, respectively.

METHODS

The authors searched a patent database for articles published between 1960 and 2010 using the Boolean search term “neurosurgeon OR neurosurgical OR neurosurgery.” The top 50 performing patent codes were then grouped into technology clusters. Patent and publication growth curves were then generated for these technology clusters. A top-performing technology cluster was then selected as an exemplar for a more detailed analysis of individual patents.

RESULTS

In all, 11,672 patents and 208,203 publications related to neurosurgery were identified. The top-performing technology clusters during these 50 years were image-guidance devices, clinical neurophysiology devices, neuromodulation devices, operating microscopes, and endoscopes. In relation to image-guidance and neuromodulation devices, the authors found a highly correlated rapid rise in the numbers of patents and publications, which suggests that these are areas of technology expansion. An in-depth analysis of neuromodulation-device patents revealed that the majority of well-performing patents were related to deep brain stimulation.

CONCLUSIONS

Patent and publication data may be used to quantitatively evaluate technological innovation in neurosurgery.

ABBREVIATIONDBS = deep brain stimulation; MEP = motor evoked potential; SSEP = somatosensory evoked potential.

Abstract

OBJECT

Technological innovation within health care may be defined as the introduction of a new technology that initiates a change in clinical practice. Neurosurgery is a particularly technology-intensive surgical discipline, and new technologies have preceded many of the major advances in operative neurosurgical techniques. The aim of the present study was to quantitatively evaluate technological innovation in neurosurgery using patents and peer-reviewed publications as metrics of technology development and clinical translation, respectively.

METHODS

The authors searched a patent database for articles published between 1960 and 2010 using the Boolean search term “neurosurgeon OR neurosurgical OR neurosurgery.” The top 50 performing patent codes were then grouped into technology clusters. Patent and publication growth curves were then generated for these technology clusters. A top-performing technology cluster was then selected as an exemplar for a more detailed analysis of individual patents.

RESULTS

In all, 11,672 patents and 208,203 publications related to neurosurgery were identified. The top-performing technology clusters during these 50 years were image-guidance devices, clinical neurophysiology devices, neuromodulation devices, operating microscopes, and endoscopes. In relation to image-guidance and neuromodulation devices, the authors found a highly correlated rapid rise in the numbers of patents and publications, which suggests that these are areas of technology expansion. An in-depth analysis of neuromodulation-device patents revealed that the majority of well-performing patents were related to deep brain stimulation.

CONCLUSIONS

Patent and publication data may be used to quantitatively evaluate technological innovation in neurosurgery.

Technological innovation within health care may be defined as the introduction of a new technology that initiates a change in clinical practice.20,24 Neurosurgery is a particularly technology-intensive surgical discipline, and new technologies have preceded many of the major advances in operative neurosurgical techniques, including the development of microneurosurgery.11,13 Although the study of innovation is a relatively mature academic field in social science and industry,19 its application in the health care setting has been largely qualitative in nature.2,4,5,21,22

Patents may be defined as “the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling an invention” and represent a good metric of technology development.24 Similarly, peer-reviewed publications in health care journals provide a measure of translational research. Therefore, technological innovation may be characterized by a rise in both patent and publication data.12

Recently, patent and publication data were used to identify clusters of technological innovation in surgery, with emerging innovations lying in the exponential phases of their respective growth curves.9 In this study, we used the same methodology to first determine the most influential technology clusters in operative neurosurgery over the last 50 years and subsequently to identify areas of contemporaneous growth to aid in predicting the important future technologies in neurosurgical practice.

Methods

Patent and Publications

Patent data were obtained using proprietary software, PatentInspiration, that searches the DOCDB using data from more than 90 countries.9 We searched for titles, abstracts, and descriptions of granted patents published between 1960 and 2010 using the Boolean search term “neurosurgeon OR neurosurgical OR neurosurgery.” To prevent duplication of data, only single members of patent families were retrieved. Publication data were obtained from PubMed (National Library of Medicine) using the same search strategy.

Over time, patent and publication counts have risen exponentially in all fields (Fig. 1). A previously published equation9 was applied to normalize both patent and publication counts using data from 2010 (the year reporting the greatest number of patents and publications).

FIG. 1.
FIG. 1.

Plots of patents (upper) and publications (lower) related to neurosurgery over time. Solid line indicates raw data and dashed line shows normalized data.

Top-Performing Technology Clusters

After compilation of the patent data set, the top 50 performing patent codes over the last 50 years (those codes for which the greatest number of patent applications had been submitted) were identified.9 Patent codes for nontechnological advances (such as drugs) and those unrelated to operative neurosurgery were excluded. The remaining patent codes were grouped into clusters of related surgical technologies by two of the authors (H.J.M. and R.M.K.), and any disagreements were arbitrated by a third author (A.H.H.). The top-performing technology clusters were then evaluated individually by performing additional patent and publication searches (see Table 1 for search strategies).

TABLE 1

Search strategies

DeviceSearch String
Image-guidance devices(“image guidance” OR “image guided” OR “augmented reality” OR “image fusion” OR “image overlay” OR neuronavigation) AND (neurosurgery OR neurosurgeon OR neurosurgical)
Clinical neurophysiology devices, including those measuring MEPs and SSEPs(“motor evoked potentials” OR MEP OR “somatosensory evoked potentials” OR SSEP) AND (neurosurgery OR neurosurgeon OR neurosurgical)
Neuromodulation devices, including those for DBS, spinal cord stimulation, and peripheral nerve stimulation(“deep brain stimulation” OR DBS OR “spinal cord stimulation” OR “spinal cord stimulator” OR “peripheral nerve stimulation” OR “peripheral nerve stimulator”) AND (neurosurgery OR neurosurgeon OR neurosurgical)
Operating microscopes(microscope OR microsurgery OR microneurosurgery) AND (neurosurgery OR neurosurgeon OR neurosurgical)
Endoscopes(endoscope OR endoscopy OR endoscopic OR neuroendoscope OR neuroendoscopy OR neuroendoscopic OR neuro-endoscope OR neuro-endoscopy OR neuro-endoscopic) AND (neurosurgery OR neurosurgeon OR neurosurgical)

The methodology described above was then repeated for patents and publications over the last 5 years of the data set (2005–2010). A comparison of the top-performing patent codes over these different time periods enabled us to determine the more recent technological developments.

Top-Performing Technology Patents

A top-performing technology cluster was then selected as an exemplar for a more detailed analysis of individual patents. The impact of each patent (i) within the data set was determined using the year of publication (yi), the number of forward citations (ci), and the family size (fi). Scores were derived from each of these variables, and a total score was calculated, using the equations below. Within the data set, cmax is the maximum number of citations held by a patent and fmax is the largest patent family.

article image
The top 50 performing patents were then retrieved for indepth review. Patents for nontechnological advances (such as drugs) and those unrelated to operative neurosurgery were again excluded. To our knowledge, this approach to quantifying the impact of individual patents has been used by industry to identify landmark patents but has not yet been described in the health care literature.

Statistical Analysis

The data were analyzed with Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS) version 20.0. Patent and publication data were plotted against each other to determine whether their relationship was monotonic. If so, Pearson's (r) or Spearman's rank (rs) correlation coefficient was applied to determine the strength of their relationship depending on whether the association was linear or nonlinear, respectively.

Results

Patents and Publications

In all, 11,672 patents and 208,203 publications relating to neurosurgery between 1960 and 2010 were identified. The original and normalized patent and publication data are presented in Fig. 1. Normalized patent counts reached a peak in 2005, and normalized publication counts reached an early peak in 1964 and a late peak in 1998.

Top-Performing Technology Clusters

The top-performing technology clusters over the 50 years studied (1960–2010) are summarized in Table 2. Approximately half of the patent codes concerned non-technological advances such as drugs. Of the remaining patent codes, the largest cluster involved image-guidance devices, which accounted for 37.9% of the patents granted. The remaining technology clusters identified concerned clinical neurophysiology devices (including those that record motor evoked potentials [MEPs] and somatosensory evoked potentials [SSEPs]), neuromodulation devices (including those for deep brain stimulation [DBS], spinal cord stimulation, and peripheral nerve stimulation), operating microscopes, and endoscopes.

TABLE 2

Top 50 performing patent codes between 1960 and 2010 and between 2005 and 2010

RankTechnology ClusterNo. of CodesNo. of Patents (%)*
1960–2010
1Image-guidance devices82625 (37.9)
2Clinical neurophysiology devices, including those measuring MEPs and SSEPs41450 (21.0)
3Neuromodulation devices, including those for DBS, spinal cord stimulation, and peripheral nerve stimulation41294 (18.7)
4Operating microscopes2420 (6.1)
5Endoscopes2391 (5.7)
6Miscellaneous4738 (10.7)
2005–2010
1Image-guidance systems91110 (46.0)
2Clinical neurophysiology devices, including those measuring MEPs and SSEPs5532 (22.0)
3Neuromodulation devices, including those for deep brain stimulation, spinal cord stimulation, and peripheral nerve stimulation3517 (21.4)
4Endoscopes2152 (6.3)
5Operating microscopes1103 (4.3)
6Miscellaneous5391 (16.2)

Normalized data.

The top-performing technology clusters between 2005 and 2010 were largely unchanged. The proportion of patent codes associated with endoscopes between 2005 and 2010 increased slightly over those between 1960 and 2010 (6.3% vs 5.7%), and the proportion of patent codes associated with operating microscopes decreased in the same time span (4.3% vs 6.1%).

Top-Performing Technology Patents

Neuromodulation devices were selected for more detailed analysis because they demonstrated recent rapid growth, represented a comparatively well-defined technology cluster, and are the subspecialty interest of the senior author (D.N.). More than two-thirds of the patent applicants were located in the United States (279 of 411 [67.9%]), and the most common applicant was Medtronic.

The top-performing technology patents related to neuromodulation devices over the 50 years studied are summarized in Table 3. Approximately one-third of the patents concerned nontechnological advances such as drugs. Of the remaining patents, the majority (21 of 33 [63.6%]) described devices for deep brain stimulation, with others dedicated to spinal cord stimulation (6 of 33 [18.2%]), peripheral nerve stimulation (2 of 33 [6.1%]), or a combination of these functions (4 of 33 [12.1%]).

TABLE 3

Highest-impact patents in neuromodulation

RankTitleYearNo. of CitationsNo. of FamiliesScore
1Multichannel apparatus for epidural spinal cord stimulation1995281457
2Transcranial brain stimulation1998241356
3Microfabricated neurostimulation device201014756
4Method for treating a movement disorder200172354
5Adaptive brain stimulation method and system2000150152
6Methods for treating tinnitus by drug microinfusion from a neural prosthesis inserted into the brain199745552
7Brain electrode200217952
8MRI-guided localization &/or lead-placement systems, related methods, devices, and computer program products200712751
9Guidance system and method for surgical procedure200515650
10Position-responsive neurostimulator199483249
11Living tissue stimulation and recording techniques199720749
12Apparatus and methods for delivery of transcranial magnetic stimulation200215749
13System and method for using haptic device in combination w/ a computer-assisted200312849
surgery system
14Stimulation of neural tissue w/light20068949
15Selective dorsal column stimulation in spinal cord stimulation, using conditioning pulses200420448
16Clinician programmer system and method for generating interface models and displays of volume200912048
17Apparatus and method for expanding stimulation lead body in situ199911947
18Stimulation apparatus200271047
19Means for functional restoration of a damaged nervous system20076847
20Minimally invasive monitoring systems and methods20075947
21Apparatus and method for closed-loop intracranial stimulation for optimal control of neurological disease200551146
22Detecting neurological dysfunction200212646
23MRI- and radiofrequency-compatible leads and related methods of operating and fabricating leads20085746
24System and method for defining volume for stimulation in brain20103846
25Stimulation leads, delivery systems, and methods of use201021046
26Percutaneous epidural lead-introducing system and method199388145
27Systems and methods for tissue stimulation in medical treatment200639145
28Systems and methods for treating disorders of the CNS by modulation of brain networks200720245
29Apparatus and method for closed-loop intracranial stimulation for optimal control of neurological disease200010745
30Magnetic field stimulation techniques200210645
31Techniques for controlling abnormal movements by brain stimulation and drug infusion200152144
32Controlled steering of a flexible needle20075644
33Electrical stimulation of the sympathetic nerve chain200341144

Statistical Analysis

The relationships between normalized patents and publication counts over time for the top-performing technology clusters are illustrated in Fig. 2. Plots of the data on image-guidance and neuromodulation devices reveal a highly correlated rapid rise (rs = 0.87 and 0.83, respectively [p < 0.001]). Plots of the data on operating microscopes and endoscopes demonstrate a similar trend (rs = 0.93 and 0.87, respectively [p < 0.001]) before the numbers reached a plateau in approximately 2000. The plot of clinical neurophysiology devices was unique among the technology clusters assessed, with a comparatively poorer correlation between the numbers of patents and publications related to them (rs = 0.64 [p < 0.001]). There was a recent rapid rise in the number of normalized patents, while publications reached a plateau in 1993.

FIG. 2.
FIG. 2.

Plots of patents and publications over time concerning image-guidance devices (A), clinical neurophysiology devices (B), neuromodulation devices (C), operating microscopes (D), and endoscopes (E). Solid line indicates normalized patents and dashed line shows normalized publications.

Discussion

For the first time, this study has quantitatively evaluated technological innovation in neurosurgery. Among the major technology clusters identified, the image-guidance-device cluster was dominant, accounting for almost half of the top-performing neurosurgical technology patents within recent years. Clinical neurophysiology devices, neuromodulation devices, operating microscopes, and endoscopes also featured highly within the top 50 performing patent codes.

The Diffusion of Innovations theory describes the adoption curve of technological innovations as a sigmoid function, reflecting the normal variation in attitudes of individuals, from early adopters to laggards, toward new ideas (Fig. 3).19 A similar curve was observed with the technology clusters themselves, corresponding to the different phases of innovation.9 The early takeoff in patenting and publication activity is associated with the incubation phase, when landmark work is produced. The rapid rise in patent and publication activity is associated with the exponential growth phase, in which both industry and surgeons drive innovation. Finally, the plateau of patent and publication activity is associated with the saturation phase, characterized by technology refinement; in this phase, manufacturers continue applying for patents to maintain market dominance.

FIG. 3.
FIG. 3.

Adoption curve of technological innovations.

Applying the aforementioned framework to the present study, there was a highly correlated rapid rise in the numbers of patents and publications involving image-guidance and neuromodulation devices (rs = 0.87 and 0.83, respectively [p < 0.001]), which suggests that they are emerging technology clusters. The observed early takeoff in image-guidance-device patent and publication activity corresponds to the development of frameless techniques in the late 1980s and early 1990s.10,18 Neuromodulation has undergone a similarly rapid expansion in recent years. Neurosurgery has been used to modulate or modify neurological functions since its infancy, but it was the development of dedicated neurostimulator devices by Medtronic in the 1970s that helped spur innovation in the field.6 The rapid rise in the number of neuromodulation-device patents and publications began in 1987, when Benabid pioneered the use of DBS to the subthalamic nucleus to treat tremor in patients with Parkinson's disease.14 This increase is reflected by the findings of our in-depth analysis of neuromodulation-device patents; Medtronic was the most common applicant, and the majority of well-performing patents was related to DBS.

Operating microscopes and endoscopes were also found to have highly correlated increases in the numbers of patents and publications related to them (rs = 0.93 and 0.87 [p < 0.001]) but seemed to reach a plateau in 2000. It is surprising that neurosurgeons were relatively late adopters of the surgical microscope. In 1957, more than 35 years after Nylén pioneered the use of surgical microscopes in otorhinolaryngology, Theodor Kurze used the technology to help remove a facial nerve schwannoma from a 5-year-old patient.25 The father of microneurosurgery was undoubtedly Gazi Yaşargil, who in 1972 constructed a system of adjustable counterweights to counterbalance the otherwise cumbersome and unwieldy operating microscope and popularized use of the operating microscope.25 Endoscopes have been used by neurosurgeons for far longer than operating microscopes, but early endoscope technology was very limited and ill suited to the brain. In the late 1980s, the development of the SELFOC lens, the charge-coupled device (CCD), and fiber-optic light sources allowed for a wider viewing angle, superior image quality, and greater illumination.8 Specific endoscopic procedures such as endoscopic third ventriculostomy (ETV) and endonasal transsphenoidal hypophysectomy are now well accepted by the neurosurgical community for selected cases.7,17 The different historical trajectories of operating microscopes and endoscopes are reflected in their respective growth curves, with endoscopes demonstrating a protracted incubation phase.

Clinical neurophysiology had a distinct pattern with a poorer, although still significant, correlation between the numbers of related patents and publications (rs = 0.64 [p < 0.001]). Patent data demonstrated a shallow rise, while publication data reached a plateau in 1993. The goal of intraoperative neurophysiological monitoring is to alert surgeons of neurological injury during an operation to prompt actions that will prevent a permanent neurological deficit. The most common methods for intraoperative monitoring of neurophysiological function are SSEPs and MEPs. During the 1980s, a group at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital Stanmore, United Kingdom, began to use SSEPs to monitor sensory tracts in the spinal cord, and other groups began to develop the means of recording MEPs after stimulation of the motor cortex or brain, which corresponds to the exponential growth in the number of related publications during this period.23 The comparatively flat growth trend in patents is similar to those described in mature technology clusters outside of health care, with industry leaders incrementally refining their patents to maintain their market share.3

Few previous studies have evaluated technological innovation in neurosurgery, and those that have generally described specific technology clusters in a qualitative fashion.6,8,25 In a 2-part series, Ponce and Lozano15,16 searched for highly cited neurosurgical publications; in Part 1 they identified the top 100 papers appearing in journals dedicated to neurosurgery, and in Part 2 they considered highly cited neurosurgical publications in all journals. However, their focus was not on device innovation per se. Babu et al.1 searched patents filed at the US Patent and Trademark Office by members of the American Board of Neurological Surgeons. Although primarily concerned with exploring the potential for conflicts of interest, their study nonetheless used patents to measure device innovation in neurosurgery. It is interesting to note that although image guidance and electrical stimulation were highly represented, the fields in which patents were most commonly held were “tumor” and “spine.” We speculate that our findings were a result of us searching all patents filed (rather than only those held by neurosurgeons), correcting for year-on-year growth in patent counts (rather than using absolute values, which would favor recent patents), and classifying devices according to technology cluster (rather than surgical field).

Within the field of surgery in general, Hughes-Hallett et al.9 first described the methodology used in the present study. The top-performing technology clusters of the last 30 years were minimally invasive surgery, robotic surgery, image guidance, surgical staplers, and ophthalmic surgery. The trends of patents and publications in these technology clusters were also in keeping with the Diffusion of Innovations theory. There was a highly correlated rapid rise in the numbers of patents and publications regarding image guidance and robotics (rs = 0.94 and 0.98, respectively [p < 0.001]), which suggests that they were both in an exponential growth phase. Minimally invasive surgery was also highly correlated (rs = 0.95 [p < 0.001]) but had reached a plateau, which suggests that the technology cluster was in a saturation phase. Surgical staplers and ophthalmic surgery were poorly correlated (rs = 0.30 [p = 0.10] and rs = 0.46 [p = 0.009], respectively), with a plateau in related publications and a shallow rise in the numbers of related patents. That these patterns in patent and publication counts in general surgery corresponded so closely to those found within neurosurgery lends additional support to the use of these metrics for quantitatively evaluating technological innovation.

Limitations

Although we applied a novel approach in this study to quantitatively evaluate technological innovation within neurosurgery, several limitations must be acknowledged. First, the methodology relies on the implicit assumption that technological innovations result in patents. Although true in most cases, surgeons may feel conflicted about patenting innovations if they believe it will limit the availability of a medical device and therefore negatively affect patient care. It is estimated that only 3% of registered neurosurgeons in the United States currently hold a patent.1 Second, small nascent technology clusters are unlikely to be identified using the methodology described above and may be concealed within larger and more mature technology clusters. Several patents for neurosurgical robots, for example, were identified under an image-guidance patent code. Third, the search terms “neurosurgeon,” “neurosurgery,” and “neurosurgical,” selected for patents unique to neurosurgery. Patents for generic technological innovations that did not explicitly state their application to neurosurgery, but could nonetheless be used in the field, were therefore not included in the analysis. Finally, there may be a substantial time lag between the application for a patent and its being granted.

Conclusions

This study has demonstrated, for the first time, the use of patent and publication data to quantitatively evaluate technological innovation in neurosurgery. Five major technology clusters were identified over the 50 years studied (i.e., image-guidance devices, clinical neurophysiology devices, neuromodulation devices, operating microscopes, and endoscopes). Moreover, the growth pattern of these technology clusters over time could be described in terms of the Diffusion of Innovations theory. Image-guidance and neuromodulation devices were found to be lying within a phase of exponential growth and as such can be forecast to have an increasing influence in the future of operative neurosurgery. In future studies, the same methodology may be applied to assess more specific technology clusters to assist in forecasting their potential influence.

Acknowledgment

We thank PatentInspiration for providing details on their metrics.

Author Contributions

Conception and design: all authors. Acquisition of data: Marcus, Hughes-Hallett, Kwasnicki. Analysis and interpretation of data: Marcus, Hughes-Hallett, Kwasnicki. Drafting the article: Marcus. Critically revising the article: Hughes-Hallett, Kwasnicki, Darzi, Yang, Nandi. Reviewed submitted version of manuscript: all authors. Approved the final version of the manuscript on behalf of all authors: Marcus. Statistical analysis: Marcus. Administrative/technical/material support: Darzi, Yang, Nandi. Study supervision: Darzi, Yang, Nandi.

References

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Article Information

Correspondence Hani J. Marcus, Department of Neurosurgery, Imperial College London and Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, Hamlyn Centre, Paterson Building (Level 3), Praed St., London W2 1NY, United Kingdom. email: hani.marcus10@imperial.ac.uk.

INCLUDE WHEN CITING Published online February 20, 2015; DOI: 10.3171/2014.12.JNS141422.

DISCLOSURE H. J. Marcus is supported by an Imperial College Wellcome Trust Clinical Fellowship. The other authors report no conflict of interest concerning the materials or methods used in this study or the findings specified in this paper.

© AANS, except where prohibited by US copyright law.

Headings

Figures

  • View in gallery

    Plots of patents (upper) and publications (lower) related to neurosurgery over time. Solid line indicates raw data and dashed line shows normalized data.

  • View in gallery

    Plots of patents and publications over time concerning image-guidance devices (A), clinical neurophysiology devices (B), neuromodulation devices (C), operating microscopes (D), and endoscopes (E). Solid line indicates normalized patents and dashed line shows normalized publications.

  • View in gallery

    Adoption curve of technological innovations.

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