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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 61 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Monday, May 13, 2013

Nuts and Bolts and the Future of Medicine

Luke and his trusted physician.
From Redfordfilms.com
 
Copyright ©2013 by Ralph F. Couey
Written content only.
 
 
My mind can at times be a rather strange place. It can be a space where random thoughts seem to sail out of nowhere to bounce off the walls before disappearing into the unknown.  To normal people, this can be a bit distracting.  For a writer, it's an invaluable creative tool.
 
It was a dark and stormy night.  No, really.  A slow-moving low pressure center had brought a week's worth of rain to this part of Virginia.  As a result, the motorcycle stayed indoors while my SUV got a week's worth of driving exercise.  I had finished work and was on the way home around midnight.  The traffic was thankfully light, so my mind began to free-associate.  Thoughts flew by, some fully-formed, others mere unidentifiable pixels.  At one point, a rather robust idea presented itself, one worthy of exploration and contemplation.
 
Star Wars has grown beyond mere entertainment to become a cultural icon.  The impact of George Lucas' cinematic tome has expanded to global proportions.  An interesting measuring stick of that influence lies in the number of people, world-wide, who claim to be adherents to the Jedi religion.  According to British census figures, Jedi-ism is now the leading alternative religion, and the 7th largest religion in the U.K.  Australia boasts as many as 70,000 adherents.  New Zealand reports some 53,000 claimants.
 
I don't know if this was what George had in mind when he penned the trilogy.
 
As I have written previously, I've always held a fascination with space and the possibilities of space travel, so things like Star Wars and Star Trek have long held a warm place in my memory banks.  But on that rainy night in Northern Virginia, a cogent thought brought forth a new realization.
 
In all six Star Wars movies, when humans (or other organic-based beings) require medical attention, they get it from 'droids.  But when the 'droids need repair, they get it from humans.
 
I searched my recollections extensively and nowhere can I remember a non-mechanical doctor or nurse appearing in the stories.
 
This is not necessarily a new concept.  In Michael Crichton's first novel (1969) "Andromeda Strain" the staff of scientists assembled to investigate a deadly bacterial strain apparently from space are subjected to rigorous medical testing prior to entering the secret Wildfire complex to begin their work.  At one point, they are introduced to an Electronic Body Analyzer, or EBA.  Crichton describes it thus...
 
"The electronic body analyzer had been developed by Sandeman Industries in 1965,
under a general government contract to produce body monitors for astronauts in space.
It was understood by the government at that time that such a device,
though expensive at a cost of $87,000 each,
would eventually replace the human physician as a diagnostic instrument."

That book, written in a terse documentary style, is like many of the good Doctor's novels, in that once you finish the final page, you're not really sure if the story wasn't really a work of fiction.  Now, Star Trek's Doctors McCoy, Crusher, Bashir, Doctor (the emergency holographic medical officer from Voyager), and Phlox all had highly advanced diagnostic equipment, but there was always a living being interfacing between gear and patient.

But in Star Wars, that human (a cautionary term, given the diversity of the Star Wars universe) touch is fully removed.  While the medical 'droids possess a sort of invented personality, there is no comforting presence as we have come to expect in our version of modern medicine.  It's probably a good thing that these robots holding a human life in their (hands?) don't work on Windows software.  Imagine having to pull a hard reboot in the middle of brain surgery.

Now when C-3PO, R2-D2, or any other of the plethora of mechanical...beings... break down, they are given over to human technicians who accept them tenderly and with empathy and concern.  Why is it that 'droids get that warm presence and not humans?  This seems somehow...unfair, if you will.

But sci-fi aside, is it possible that Lucas has given us a sneak preview of the future of medicine? 

To get a doctor from the first day of pre-med to the last day of residency is at least a 12-year process.  And an expensive one.  Going to the University of Indiana won't be as costly as, say, Harvard Medical, but it's still going to cost upwards of $300,000.  To walk that road, and it is a tough one to be sure, takes someone of extraordinary intelligence and ability, and only a perfunctory need for sleep.  They can work productively for a half-century, saving countless lives and making others much more comfortable.  But, unfortunately, as the need for malpractice insurance demonstrates, despite their abilities, some just can't avoid being human.

Robots (or androids) are not human, and therefore not subject to organic frailties.  But they are also lacking in honest empathy, the most valuable skill of a human physician.  A 'droid could go into the heart of the worst pandemic in history with no danger of becoming infected.  But a human does possess that leap of imagination that could lead to a cure.

So there is a trade-off.  You can either get a medical 'droid who will never make a mistake, or a human who knows what it's like to feel pain.

Medical 'droids won't be cheap, either to purchase or maintain.  But there may come a time when such devices become necessary and even accepted.  However, despite the march toward the unimaginable technologies of the future, one thing will never change.

Whether it comes from an android or a human, a bill will still be a bill.

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