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Are Hospitals Ready to Boldly Go Where No Man Has Gone Before?

8 Oct 2014 by Dianne Price

In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Dr. McCoy visited a hospital of the 1980s. As he walks through the corridors, he encounters a woman in the hallway, undergoing kidney dialysis. His response?

Dialysis?! What is this, the Dark Ages?”

“Dialysis?! What is this, the Dark Ages?”

He hands her a pill, tells her to swallow it and she grows a new kidney.

Far-fetched? Not at all. A technology known as bioprinting is fueling a relatively new science know as regenerative medicine: the ability to grow new body parts. In 2006, Dr. Anthony Atala’s lab at Wake Forest University grew and implanted a bladder in a human. Today, his team is perfecting the art of growing ears and creating new genitals for soldiers who have stepped on bombs.

Healthcare is no doubt, a hotbed of high tech. Yet, I know of hospitals where they still welcome Amish families who bring chickens, quilts and baskets as partial payment for their medical care.

It’s National Hospital Week 2014 and the term “hospital” continues to evoke a sense of dichotomy. It’s a place that touts high tech and high touch. It’s a place we all love to hate. Nary a soul seeks to be hospitalized, yet we want to be sure that the best of care is always at the ready.

Writing in Fast Company, healthcare design experts Jean Mah and Robin Guenther, explain that “today’s health care delivery system was developed in an era of infectious disease, trauma, technological breakthroughs, and the rise of medical education; it is not optimized for the day-to-day management of 21st century chronic diseases. It is huge, unwieldy, and it lacks agility. It is not about health promotion or disease prevention; it is optimized for disease treatment.”

Perhaps it’s exactly the creative tension between big hearts and big data that will drive the development of new, more effective and efficient ways of giving and receiving medical care. An international study found in 2013 that 57 percent of those surveyed believed that technology will lessen the need for traditional hospitals.

What will take the place of the care we’ve come to count on? Who is working today to create the hospital of tomorrow?

Necessity is the mother of invention. In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Gowron shares this Klingon proverb:

Act, and you shall have dinner; wait, and you shall be dinner.Geordi_La_Forge_2379

 Healthcare providers are the masters of meeting necessity head-on. Many are placing their bets on physicians, nurses and other healthcare personnel to summon up their native curiosity, innate intelligence and collaborative spirit to re-invent healthcare from the inside out, coupled with patients and consumers who will drive changes from the outside in.

Remember a blind LeVar Burton in Star Trek: The Next Generation wearing a piece of technology called a “VISOR”? It allowed him to see by directly sending signals to his brain? In the next episode, Star Trek: First Contact, the VISOR has been replaced by ocular implants.  In the real world, these technologies are no longer fiction – and the technological advances are occurring at sometimes, breakneck speed.

Today’s doctor and nurse are armed with new an arsenal of technology tools; new ways of gathering both “big data” and individual personal information. Their very training makes them well-positioned to deal with continuing change and uncertainty.

Modern Healthcare explains that Eric Topol’s book, The Creative Destruction of Medicine: How the Digital Revolution will Create Better Health Care reveals how “a propitious convergence of a maturing Internet, ever-increasing bandwidth, near-ubiquitous connectivity, and remarkable miniature pocket computers in the form of mobile phones’ are taking physicians and patients where no one has gone before.”

Last year, the Kaiser-Permanente system conducted 5,000,000 patient visits by video-technology, phone or email. The Kaiser model is based on keeping people out of hospitals. One prognosticator even boldly claimed that in 20 to 25 years that 80 percent of doctors will be replaced by machines. Although many disagree with the idea that doctors and hospitals will become extinct, it is clear that hospitals and physicians of the future will be nearly unrecognizable from what we know today.

“Because so much can be processed automatically, through artificial intelligence, the need for the processing will be reduced on the physician’s side,” Topol explains. “On the other hand, the humanistic compassion, communicative judgment and experience [of providers] is going to be emphasized all the more.”
Hospitals may not have a clear blueprint for the future, but most have the talents, skills, wisdom, inventiveness, passion – not to mention, pressures – to create their future while they are living it. As Capt. Kirk would urge:

Second star to the right…and straight on ’til morning.



EDITOR’S NOTE:  Dr. Topol’s book is available for free download :
The Creative Destruction of Medicine: How the Digital Revolution Will Create Better Health Care

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