Technological Crutches

13th Feb, 2015

Having had an accident last week, fracturing one wrist and spraining the other, it’s been an opportune time to reflect on the relationship between technology, medicine and humanity.

Think of hospitals, doctors and medicine today and it’s likely that you’ll immediately think of digital scans, screens, sensors and monitors together with pharmaceuticals. Arguably expert care, diagnosis and judgement, the crucial third element of any successful medical intervention or treatment will be overlooked by many people – particularly in the context of an abstract discussion.

As an aside, a visit to the plaster room in any busy accident & emergency unit can appear as a barbaric throwback to an earlier age of medicine, a reminder of how far medicine has advanced through the robust application and integration of scientific method and technological innovation.

Today, we in the developed world are reaping the rewards in terms of healthy life-expectancy – with our ageing societies creating new socio-economic challenges and opportunities – but also in terms of recovery from illnesses and injuries that were previously terminal (witness the astonishing progress in dealing with military casualties, or cancer cases).

Yet medical advances in the context of a consumer society create new pressures and expectations among patient customers. In fact in the fracture clinic plaster room I was able to personalise my plaster so that it’s now resplendent in (Leicester City) blue – but the oddest element was a feedback form asking me to what extent I would recommend that A&E department to family or friends.

These expectations include on-demand access to the latest drugs and medicines, but also non-essential or cosmetic surgeries and enhancements to overcome perceived biological flaws.

In fact so central to contemporary culture is the positive, enabling role of technology, and for consumers increasingly and especially the role of mobile applications that I have received many recommendations of voice to text dictation services that could make my working life easier.

From which a few thoughts emerge:

  • The threat to universal provision driven by (individualised) mobile health monitoring & treatment
  • The implications of that shift for the future of universal funding i.e. general taxation
  • The implications of that shift for personal freedoms in terms of lifestyle and consumption choices

But more broadly I’ve been struck by the concerns as to the future of this relationship between technology (medicine) and humanity. In the medical context this has been brought to the fore over the last two weeks by the parliamentary vote on so-called three parent babies (with the terminology changed to ameliorate public concern by deliberately avoiding reference to cloning techniques).

But it is also reflected in the concerns expressed in recent months by the likes of Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking as to what the emergence of Artificial Intelligence means for the future of humanity? Beyond that singular point of concern we might consider what the nascent vision for the internet of everything means for us as individuals, communities and society.

As we see in our project work the impacts of new technologies and resulting behaviours on culture, economics and society are vast, inter-connected and often unpredictable.

Inclusive debates are needed now to address the myriad issues involved, it is not enough, as with the three-person baby debate, to leave the objections to the religious, these ethical issues and challenges are all our responsibility – the innovators, the practitioners, the regulators and the customers.

If such debates, processes and conclusions are engaged with and trusted by all stakeholders – including their right to object and challenge – then the promises inherent in the scientific method and technological innovation can be fulfilled in tandem with the common good.