Health, the Final Frontier: Will Future Technology Make Doctors Obsolete?

xprize, star trek, medical technology, healthcare

Fifty years ago this month, a new TV show debuted with the now-iconic phrase “Space, the final frontier.” It received mixed reviews, but lives on in syndicated spin-offs, blockbuster movies, and futuristic innovations in technology.

Case in point: The Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize competition, which features a $10 million purse for the team that can build a modern-day counterpart to the handheld device “Bones” McCoy and his peers used to collect patients’ bodily information and diagnose maladies. With seven teams in the final round, all they have to do is design a portable device that can capture five real-time vital signs, diagnose 12 diseases, and do so in a non-invasive, consumer-friendly way. Testing of the finalists’ devices is now underway with the winner expected to be announced in early 2017.

OK, so it’s still more science fiction than science fact, but the search for a real Tricorder is no anomaly. As the pace of medical technology accelerates, a diverse array of efforts promise to benefit patients, challenge doctors, and upend traditional systems. Among the recent developments:

Viewing your after photos before surgery: Potential patients love before & after photos — in a RealSelf survey, 83% said they wouldn’t even consider a practice that doesn’t have them — because they provide a sense of possible results. But what if they could see their own results beforehand? That’s the promise of New Look Now’s Aesthetic Treatment Visualizer, which allows would-be patients to select a treatment, upload an appropriate photo of themselves, and receive a computer-generated “after” picture via email. Several drug companies, device manufacturers, and aesthetic practices are already using it.

Automated empathy: It sounds like an oxymoron — how do you automate a personal connection? — but several companies are offering platforms that manage post-care follow-up communications so doctors don’t have to. As noted by CNN, whether such communications actually trigger empathy is unclear, but the messages can be personalized, which has been shown to improve patient engagement and generate higher satisfaction.

There’ll be app for that: Released in April, Apple’s CareKit is a software framework designed to help developers create apps that enable people to actively manage their own medical conditions. Hospitals, universities, and tech companies are currently working on apps that will help patients record symptoms, maintain recovery regimens, and easily share the information with their caregivers.

Of course, only time will tell which new and soon-to-debut products and services will go mainstream and which ones will fall by the wayside. But specific offerings aside, the fact is that healthcare tech is booming and, as Rick Valencia, president of Qualcomm Life, says,

The future of hospitals, patients and professionals isn’t far off. In fact, most of the technology is already here; it’s just a matter of adoption. As we look toward the future of care, embracing these changing models of care is paramount. We are transforming health care, like professionals of the past, to meet the demands of a 21st century population.

As Valencia suggests, the real test will be adoption, which, in turn, will have ancillary effects that go beyond the basics of providing care. Take aesthetic marketing, for example. In a field where options abound, competition is intense, and consumers demand convenience, practices that embrace new technologies may be able to leverage them as a way to differentiate themselves from the competition.

As for the larger issue of whether such technologies will make doctors obsolete, there’s no reason to worry. We’re a long way from the machines taking over and medical devices becoming so advanced that they supplant the doctor-patient relationship. In fact, as Dr. Erik Viirre, medical director of the Tricorder XPRIZE, recently wrote:

Medical professionals should not feel too concerned by the Tricorder becoming a reality. In fact, [Star Trek] reminds us that nurses and doctors will still be a crucial part of keeping humanity (and other species) alive and healthy. The Tricorder will bring about a more informed patient-doctor relationship and usher in a new era of health data management and analysis. And while Dr. McCoy’s bedside manner is often more gruff than Southern Gentleman, his caring and competence… proves that access to a good doctor is something we should all rely on.

About Rob Lovitt

Rob Lovitt is a longtime writer and editor who believes every good business has a great story to tell. He has written for dozens of magazines and websites, including NBCnews.com, Expedia.com and the inflight magazines of Alaska, Horizon and Frontier airlines.

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