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Rhys Davies: Imagining the Future of Medicine—not just robots and old people

29 Apr, 14 | by BMJ

On Monday 21 April, the Royal Albert Hall played host to a curious event. Imagining the Future of Medicine was an afternoon filled with a variety of speakers and artistic performances. Its goal was, in equal parts, to challenge and inspire its audience—a melange of doctors, students, and the greater public—to consider novel ways of thinking and innovative new avenues for healthcare.

The event was hosted by comedian Dara O’Briain, who was being, in his own words, glib amid the smart people. There was a diverse breadth of subjects covered. From Leo Cheng talking about the humanitarian work of ‘mercy ships’ off the west coast of Africa to Dr Katherine Sleeman speaking on palliative care and the quest after a good death. From Alison Balsom exploring the charity work of Brass for Africa to Professor Sarah-Jane Blakemore explaining her work on adolescent brains and that teenagers aren’t broken, they’re just different.

Performances by the likes of the Kaos Choir for Deaf and Hearing Children were heart warming. The choir, which filled the stage of the Royal Albert Hall with children as young as four, sang and signed their songs simultaneously. The audience responded by ‘clapping’ in British Sign Language.

While I greatly enjoyed the day and found many of the talks interesting, there were some that couldn’t quite carry me along with their blend of innovation and optimism. For example, Dr Jamil El-Imad demonstrated a prototype for a slimline EEG headband to wear on a daily basis. Combined with an algorithm for analysing EEGs and cloud computing, he hopes to create a real time text service to alert patients with epilepsy that they will soon have a seizure, allowing them to make themselves safe.

It sounds like a revolutionary idea, but Dr El-Imad was vague about how much warning his device could give patients in advance. Furthermore, I worry that, if this technology became a reality, patients with epilepsy might be discriminated against, for car insurance et cetera, for not wearing such technology. Some people will always find a cloud for every silver lining.

Ali Parsa, former chief executive of Circle, also had a product to push. It was a smartphone app called Babylon, and came with many bells and whistles. Through his app a person can view their medical records, text queries to their doctor (with photo or video attachments—this is the 21st century after all), book phone, video or face to face appointments with a nurse, GP or specialist of their choosing, and dictate which pharmacy to collect their prescriptions from. It was awing in the control and access that it might give to patients, but a teenage diet of science fiction novels has made me instinctually wary of futuristic products called Babylon.

For one thing, accessing medical records on your phone was presented matter of factly, as if the furores over care.data and phone hacking had never happened at all.

A far larger concern I have is how this future facing technology will fare in an environment where there are places in the NHS that still rely on Windows 98. The IT system of the NHS has been famously refractory to attempts at modernisation. Will it play nice, or at all, with a cheeky new app like this?

Furthermore, Parsa began by stating that 70% of the world’s population find access to healthcare expensive, difficult, or inconvenient. The Babylon app is intended to address that problem, but how many of that quoted 70% have a smartphone? What percentage of the UK patient population has a smartphone for that matter? The app seems ideal for the hip young professionals who live on their phones, but I wonder what use it is for everyone else, the majority of patients?

I am being too negative. It was a highly interesting day, which gave me a lot to think about. But I could not shake free of the reality I live in to explore all this imagination and innovation fully. You might call it cynicism, but maybe events like these need a little grounding.

To quote American poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, “If you’re too open-minded, your brains will fall out.”

Rhys Davies is a final year medical student at Imperial College London. He is currently working as a Clegg Scholar in The BMJ offices.

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  • Priyan Tantrige

    Agree with the above. Also, in further detail, the show was divided into three parts (from 2pm to 7pm) with the acts as follows:

    Thinking outside the box

    The show opened with a demonstration of defective human heart valves as assessed and repaired today. We were shown the valves as examined and depicted by Leonardo da Vinci with
    attention to the detail of pathological appearances that led to the developmentof modern reconstruction techniques.

    This was followed by a product demonstration, by a show sponsor, of a headset in development that may predict the onset of an epileptic seizure. Although less than one may imagine given that many epilepsy sufferers have warning signs of an impending fit, it
    allows the imagination of a product that more sensitively predicts anomalous neuronal activity and automatically prevents seizures.

    Next we were shown methods of recreating non-physiological conditions in extreme environments to model early hypoxic brain injury as seen following trauma to develop treatments that prevent long term complications.

    The final act was a performance depicting the adolescent brain and our current lack of insight into this period of development and its association with innovation.

    Medicine without borders

    The second act started with a moving performance by a choir of deaf children. This was followed by an emotive reflection of a surgeon’s experience on a “Mercy Ship” in Africa. The punch line was the observation that when people believe in something, they will do it wholeheartedly and without payment.

    Another shameless product launch followed, this time of an app that requests patients to enter their health data so that they may then request an online consultation with a doctor. The pitch is that patients will be able to see a doctor immediately. The reality is global data collection and sale of unvalidated online private
    healthcare.

    The act ended with a duet outlining the progress in the field of biosynthetics and the promise of the imminent arrival of custom made human tissue. No reference was made to any of this crossing the developing world borders.

    Translating the untranslatable

    The transforming power of music was again demonstrated, this time in its capacity to change the lives of African amputees as implemented by a charity that treated the audience to a series of live and video performances.

    We were then shown the counterintuitive behavior of the human brain to disregard warnings and its heed to a promising
    future instead, and the application of this to exercise a degree of
    control.

    Realitythen hit home when a clinician took the stage and reminded us that we are all going to die, and advised we prepare for this as we do for the births of our children. The further poignant point was that despite this inevitability and high rates of undignified deaths, miniscule funding is allocated to research to give people the death they want.

    Finally, Goldacre literally ran onto the stage to enthusiastically rattle through a summary of his bestsellers, reminding us the battle is still on for trial data!

    How much was it?

    A ticket for any available seat in the house cost £30 on a first come first served basis. Many of the seats were unreserved so members of the audience may change seats at intervals. The ticket also included entry to a platform called “The Cell” held
    across the road at Imperial College London prior to the show.

    Would you recommend it?

    If you would like to spend a bank holiday afternoon and early evening listening to live performances about health at a beautiful London venue and mingle with like-minded individuals, and critique the hopeless, then yes. Otherwise, tune into the online streams in your own time, select what you want to hear and contact the performers if you wish to establish a link.

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