Overlapping Surgeries, A Little Drummer Bird, And Human-Free Hedge Funds

7:23 minutes

It’s a common practice in surgical hospitals to schedule surgeons in overlapping surgeries. The primary surgeon completes the most technically difficult portion, then another surgeon finishes up, whether for training purposes, or so hospitals can more efficiently schedule their top surgeons. There’s no evidence that overlapping surgeries are unsafe, but patients often aren’t informed of the practice.

[A creative writer turned doctor aims his pen at the hospital]

Amy Nordrum, associate editor for IEEE Spectrum, explains why an editorial in JAMA is calling for hospitals to establish better transparency about the frequency and safety of these overlapping surgeries. Plus, she introduces a cockatoo that employs objects to drum on trees, and new approaches to using artificial intelligence in managing hedge funds.

Segment Guests

Amy Nordrum

Amy Nordrum is an executive editor at MIT Technology Review. Previously, she was News Editor at IEEE Spectrum in New York City.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, an investigation into safety breaches at the nation’s national nuclear weapons laboratories.

But first, if you have an upcoming surgery, you may not want to hear this. Hospitals sometimes schedule surgeons for overlapping surgeries, like two at a time. But it’s not as bad as it sounds.

The primary surgeon finishes the most crucial or difficult part and then hands off the rest, maybe just the closing of the incision, to someone qualified to do it. Still, it’s something that patients often don’t know about, and maybe they should.

Here to explain this, plus other selected subjects in science, is Amy Nordrum, associate editor at the IEEE Spectrum. Welcome back. Always good to see you.

AMY NORDRUM: Thanks, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Well, let’s talk about these overlapping surgeries. They go on all the time?

AMY NORDRUM: This is a really common practice in medicine. And generally, it’s thought of as ethically OK by large medical associations and the surgeons who are doing it.

So the important distinction here is that the critical portion of the surgery is not overlapping, and that’s what’s called a concurrent surgery– if you double book a surgery for the exact same time– and that is typically not allowed throughout the medical profession.

But these overlapping surgeries are really pretty common, but a couple of recent investigations by the Boston Globe and the Seattle Times have brought this practice to light and started to raise some questions about it. We really haven’t done a lot of studies on it, so it’s not really clear what this means for patient safety. And certainly, most patients who are scheduled for these overlapping surgeries aren’t even aware that this is happening.

IRA FLATOW: Can you ask? I want my doctor in the hallway?

AMY NORDRUM: Yes, you absolutely can. I mean, it’s definitely something to be aware of. This week there was an editorial published in the medical journal JAMA, and it was talking about the fact that there needs to be a lot more transparency and disclosure, and perhaps even consent forms around the fact that some patients may prefer to wait a little bit longer for surgery if it means that they don’t have to be part of an overlapping one if they’re not comfortable with the practice itself.

IRA FLATOW: So long as they’re circling the right area with a Sharpie, I’m good.

AMY NORDRUM: That’s what really matters.

IRA FLATOW: That’s what matters. Let’s move on to wildlife news.


IRA FLATOW: Can you guess what that is? I’m sure you could. That’s a woodpecker?

AMY NORDRUM: Not quite, but close.

IRA FLATOW: What is it?

AMY NORDRUM: It is a bird called the palm cockatoo, also called the palmy. This is a bird found in Northern Queensland in Australia. And that strange tapping you hear is a sound that is created by fashioning its own drumsticks, essentially, out of twigs that it strips of the leaves and bites down to size, and then also hardened seedpods.

It uses these instruments– these musical instruments, basically– to drum on tree trunks and branches as part of a mating ritual around this time of year.

IRA FLATOW: Does that have any relationship to that dancing cockatoo we’ve seen viral on YouTube?

AMY NORDRUM: Yes. That dancing cockatoo is named Snowball and it has an impeccable sense of rhythm.

And what’s really impressive about these palm cockatoos is that a lot of animals have shown proclivity for rhythm, so we know that birds and their songs and whales and their songs as well can have a certain rhythm to their music and their vocalizations, but these palm cockatoos are doing something really different. I mean, they’re actually shaping a musical tool. They’re actually creating a physical instrument that they’re then using to create the sound in the song.

Their songs also have particular musical styles. So these male cockatoos performing the mating rituals– some of them will drum very slowly and consistently, and then others will drum much faster and have a lot of different variants in their songs that they’re playing.

IRA FLATOW: Are they just trying to get discovered, or is this a mating thing?

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah. So this is usually performed in front of a female during the mating period. So this is one part of their very extravagant mating ritual. They also do things like flare up this very high crest on top of their heads, and they flash these bright red patches on their cheeks. So it’s part of this whole display that they’re going for here.

IRA FLATOW: I wonder if you could get one at home to do it. We’ll find out from our listeners, actually.

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah. The ones in captivity do not do this, and even palm cockatoos found elsewhere in the world do not. It’s only in this one particular place. It’s a very, very local behavior for this one population in Queensland.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Let’s move on to another story you wrote this week that there is a growing market for AI– artificial intelligence– in hedge fund management.

AMY NORDRUM: That’s right.

IRA FLATOW: Sounds spooky.

AMY NORDRUM: Well, hedge funds are sort of these notorious Wall Street entities, and they’re constantly trying to find ways to make better returns for their investors. And historically, what they’ve done is they’ve relied on people– so fund managers– and their own judgment and experience to make the investment calls and invest billions of dollars.

But increasingly, people have a problem, which is that they make mistakes and they’re full of biases and emotions. And fund managers– maybe they’ll be hot for a while, but then their investments will kind of cool off and they’re not so reliable.

So what hedge funds are doing now is they’re trying to move more toward quantitative methods. They’re trying to use data analytics, machine learning, to create systems that can basically crunch market data, kind of improve their strategy over time automatically, and then learn how to invest money for the best future returns better than humans could do on their own.

IRA FLATOW: So they take sort of the drama out of it, or the human element that is– I’ve got a hunch about something.

AMY NORDRUM: That’s right. All the messiness that we have as humans that are trying to make decisions, especially around finances. There’s been a lot of research on this, actually. And so the idea is that maybe machines could do it better.

There’s one fund called Quantopi, and it’s actually crowdsourcing investment algorithms. And you can write one and submit it, and if they like it they’ll put money into it. These are pretty new experiments that we’re not really sure how they’re going to fare, but there’s a lot of investors that are hoping they’ll provide better returns.

IRA FLATOW: Mine is still under the mattress. Finally, there is a hefty fine for Google this week. I mean, relatively speaking, hefty.

AMY NORDRUM: Actually, yeah. It’s a really big one. $2.7 billion. This was handed down by the European Commission. And the problem here is really a pretty simple feature that Google has implemented. We’re probably all familiar with it.

It’s when you search for a product, there’s a bar of results that will pop up at the top of your Google search results before the text. And it’s just a little collection of boxes, and it has a picture of the product, and it has maybe some ratings and some price information.

And this is what Google is pulling from its Google Shopping results. Well, the European Commission has said that this is an antitrust violation because Google is essentially using its dominance in one market, as a search engine, to promote one of its other products and services, which is its shopping, over those of its competitors.

So they’re instructing Google to change the way it displays its search results within 90 days, or they could impose additional fines on the company.

IRA FLATOW: What’s the fine? How much is the fine?

AMY NORDRUM: Well, the initial fine is $2.7 billion, and then there could be additional fines after that.

IRA FLATOW: What’s that, a $100 billion company? That’s the cost of doing business for Google.

AMY NORDRUM: I mean, in some sense. Last year, I think the revenue was around $90 billion. So it’s still– I mean, it’s a meaningful chunk to the company. And we have to see how they react. They’re considering an appeal right now.

IRA FLATOW: So we could see what our personalized assistance services turn into.

AMY NORDRUM: That’s right. Stay tuned.

IRA FLATOW: Stay tuned. Amy, always great to have you.

AMY NORDRUM: Thanks, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Have a happy 4th of July.


IRA FLATOW: Amy Nordrum, associate editor at the IEEE Spectrum.

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