Is the Future of Medicine in the Hands of a Primary Care Droid?

Is the Future of Medicine in the Hands of a Primary Care Droid?
Is the Future of Medicine in the Hands of a Primary Care Droid?

Though set “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” it isn't hard to see in the Star Wars films a vision of our own not so distant future. But Anthony Jones, a physician with a long background in health care technology development, sees the Star Wars vision of medicine's future as sheer fantasy. Specifically, he is struck by the dearth of doctors – at least human ones. “In Star Wars,” he says, “there are no people practicing medicine. Caring for patients seems to have been taken over by machines.”

And Jones is no Luddite. Until recently he was vice president for patient care and monitoring solutions at Philips Healthcare, where he was helping to shape the future of health care technology. But watching Star Wars has helped him realize that, no matter how sophisticated technology becomes, there is no substitute for the human touch. No droid, no matter how dexterous, can offer human compassion. It might be able to store and process more medical information, but only people can offer a truly sympathetic ear.

Jones is enough of a Star Wars aficionado to know what he is talking about. Consider the end of Episode V, when Darth Vader amputates the hand of his son, Luke Skywalker, with his Lightsaber. When Luke's harrowing escape ends in rescue, says Jones, “He is outfitted with a new cybernetic hand by an android surgeon.” Or think of Episode III, when Padmé Amidala gives birth to Luke and his twin sister, Leia. Says Jones, “The delivery and her subsequent death are overseen by a midwife droid.” Likewise, after Darth Vader's body is ruined in his duel with Obi-Wan Kenobi, droids fit his body with cybernetic limbs.

From George Lucas' point of view, the choice to replace human doctors with droids is not difficult to fathom. It adds to the futuristic aura of the saga. And Star Wars is populated by a vast array of species, whose very different biologies would be difficult for any human physician to master. Unlike today's doctors, medical droids probably wouldn't complain about escalating productivity demands, clunky hospital information systems and declining rates of payment.

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