Key Trends in the Future of Medicine: E-Patients, Communication and Technology

At the end of the 19th century, French artists were hired by a toy or cigarette manufacturer to create a series of postcards which would feature the future. Most of the postcards described ordinary processes and activities, but not medicine or healthcare. There might be only one example when they tried to predict the use of a microscope and the work of microbiologists:

This series of interesting postcards show how hard predicting the future of medicine is. As we must walk on the path of evidence based medicine, it’s a real challenge to predict the next technologies and solutions in healthcare. One thing is clear though: the real medical instrument will be the same, proper communication.

Robots replacing doctors?

I’ve given hundreds of presentations and I teach at several universities about the use of social media in everyday medicine and I always highlight the importance of 1) doctor-patient relationship in person, and 2) good communication skills for doctors, but if I try to think ahead, I have to agree with Vinod Khosla that technology can replace 80% percent of the work of doctors.

Khosla believed that patients would be better off getting diagnosed by a machine than by doctors. Creating such a system was a simple problem to solve. Google’s development of a driverless smart car was “two orders of magnitude more complex” than providing the right diagnosis.

IBM’s Watson is just the perfect example here. They have been working closely with oncologists at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York in order to see whether Watson could be used in the decision making processes of doctors regarding cancer treatments. Watson doesn’t answer medical questions, but based on the input data, it comes up with the most relevant and potential answers and the doctor has the final call. This is an important point as it can only facilitate the work of doctors, not replacing them.

The society of doctors is quite a closed one from many perspectives. Introducing new concepts is always tricky. Just think of how much they tried to avoid the expansion of the online world and then the denial that e-patients could be equal partners in the treatment. Medical professionals slowly accepted the advantages these concepts can bring into healthcare, therefore there is a reason to believe that the same will happen to automatic decision support systems as well.

Who will initiate the change?

Obviously, doctors can never be replaced totally by robots and the future of the patient-physician relationship is coded in the way healthy consumers take matters into their hands and lead the movement that transforms healthcare. We must not entirely rely on the society of medical professionals when it comes to changing healthcare any more, but e-patients initiate this process which is certainly going to be a strange new landscape for doctors who were trained for a paternalistic medical world.

So what should we expect to see in the next decades? I think we will see amazing developments in many areas, except medicine in which small and slow steps will mark the way towards a more transparent healthcare system in which decision trees are available for everyone, online content and social media are both curated, patients are empowered, doctors are web-savvy, and collaborative barriers are gone forever. A new world in which medical students are trained to be able to deal with the rapidly evolving technologies and e-patients.

Should we worry about it?

Envisioning Technology summarized the future of health technologies in 6 large groups such as regeneration, augmentation, treatments, diagnostics, telemedicine and biogerontology. See the full image here. Plenty of start-ups have already been walking on the paths of these areas and sooner or later patients will have access to artificial organ waiting lists.

As you can see, the aging society plays an important role in the future developments, but I would have loved to see prevention in this list. We should expect to see robotic and data-driven systems focusing on preventing diseases instead of treating them.

The next steps:

If technologically and medically well-trained doctors and empowered patients together with innovative technologies and evidence based big data systems league against diseases, we have a very good chance for winning this battle that has been going on for thousands of years.

Even if in this new world and especially in the near future, we will have new things to worry about such as medical terrorism, hacking medical devices or stealing patient data.

In a nutshell, there is a momentum in the history of medicine and we are living in the best era when we still have the opportunity to choose the path we will walk on. In case the path is marked by open minded people collaborating and crowdsourcing online in order to find solutions for medical problems, this path will lead us to a great new world.