Star Wars and the future of healthcare

In his iconic Star Wars series, George Lucas envisioned a world in a galaxy far, far away, where, among other things, doctors were droids and bots.

In this world, a droid surgeon fitted Luke Skywalker with a bionic hand after a fight with Darth Vader, a bot midwife oversaw the delivery of Princess Leia and droids treated Luke Skywalker for hypothermia after his rescue from the icy planet of Hoth. Time and time again, robots, rather than humans, provided healthcare.

Lucas viewed medical care as algorithmic, and therefore well within the capacity of intelligent machines. Does the world of healthcare in the Star Wars films — where bots are the new docs — mirror our own not-so-distant future of medicine?

Not quite. The sophistication of technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning and wearable devices moves us closer and closer to the vision that Lucas presented in Star Wars. However, rather than replacing doctors with bots, this new reality will shift the role of the physician. As technology helps to automate precise care, it will free up healthcare providers to cultivate the coveted doctor-patient relationship.

The data-driven healthcare reality awakens

The bots in the Star Wars films are intelligent machines capable of both menial and complex tasks. C-3PO can translate six million languages, and R2-D2 can fix complicated machinery to repeatedly save the day for Luke, Han Solo and the rest of the rebels.

The bots of today rival the intelligence of C-3PO and R2-D2. Robots and droids help build cars, deliver packages and defuse bombs. These same technologies are beginning to have a stronger presence in the world of medicine.

Surgeons regularly conduct laparoscopic surgery with the da Vinci Surgical System; using the surgical bot they can control tiny, precise movements of surgical instruments. At UCSF Mission Bay Medical Center robots navigate the hallways to deliver supplies to and from the pharmacy, kitchen, lab and stock rooms. Aethon, the company behind the robots, designed the bot specifically for hospitals and uses built-in maps and sensors to create a semi-autonomous robot.

Already, computer aids exist to help physicians make sense of vital signs, symptoms, lab results, radiology tests and other data to determine the underlying diagnosis. For example, computers monitor key vital signs to adjust intravenous medicine dosages based on specific algorithms, and pills equipped with cameras let computers perform endoscopic examinations of the gastrointestinal tract to diagnose disease.

The human body, while enormously complicated, can be reduced to a set of biochemical reactions and interactions, which computers can learn and use to make more precise diagnostic and therapeutic decisions. If fed enough data, a computer can become as proficient as humans at these tasks, and soon be sophisticated enough to supplement medical specialties.

The physician of the future will be able to provide deeper connections with patients.

After all, reading a CT scan, examining a picture of the skin or looking at a cell stain to diagnose disease is essentially visual pattern recognition. More advanced pattern recognition has led to the development of apps such as the Autism & Beyond app, powered by Apple’s ResearchKit that uses smartphones’ front-facing cameras and facial recognition algorithms to screen for developmental issues in children, and, which uses passive mobile data and behavioral analytics to deliver personalized mental health care.

With all of these developments, are we approaching a world like that in Star Wars, where only robots deliver care?

A new hope for healthcare: bots and docs working together

Though computers may replace certain specialties, they cannot replace human connection.

The medical profession will evolve and physicians and others care providers will focus on delivering what computers cannot: guidance, counseling and advocacy to help patients in the best way possible. In this new world of healthcare, computers will be a vital aid in care delivery, automating processes and making sense of data; meanwhile, physicians will have more time to lay hands, comfort patients and empower individuals to take part in their own care.

As this world shifts, so will the way we train doctors.

Medical schools that now accept students based on their ability to memorize disparate facts and perform well on standardized tests will start to shift their focus toward cultivating students to demonstrate empathy and counsel patients.

Certainly, the next generation of doctors and healthcare providers will need to understand the underlying mechanisms of health and disease and the basis for treatments. However, with computers assisting in diagnoses and treatment plans, the physician of the future will be able to provide deeper connections with patients in ways that can have a lasting impact on lifestyle choices, behaviors and other determinants of health beyond the clinical setting.

The future won’t look exactly like the world of Star Wars, where droids and bots are the sole care providers. However, intelligent machines will play an increasing role in healthcare, not as a replacement, but rather as a valuable supplement.