Does the Future Belong to Mad Max or Star Trek?

The daily headlines may suggest a dystopian future, but the evidence shows the world is actually becoming a healthier, safer place to live. Such evidence-based optimism is on full display during this week’s Mayo Clinic Platform Conference.

By Paul Cerrato, senior research analyst and communications specialist, Mayo Clinic Platform and John Halamka, M.D., president, Mayo Clinic Platform.

Science fiction fans will no doubt remember the Mad Max series of movies, which depicted a post-apocalyptic future in which war and shortages of life’s necessities created a wasteland of survivalists and biker gangs. In sharp contrast, the Star Trek franchise of movies and TV series paints a hopeful future in which poverty has been eliminated, humanity focuses on self-improvement, and most conflicts are resolved with reasoned debate and compromise. Several social critics have pointed out that popular media, with its constant focus on bad news, bloodshed, and hatred, are encouraging the public to believe that the world of Max Rockatansky is inevitable.

No doubt, the world is facing unprecedented challenges, including a lingering pandemic, war in Ukraine, and a polarized populace. But what newspapers, social media, and online news channels fail to do is put these events into historical context. As one commentator points out: “War is rarer today, by some measures, than it has been for most of the past 50 years — and, when it does occur, is significantly less deadly. Genocides and mass atrocities are less common all the time, too. Life expectancy, literacy and standards of living have all risen to historic highs. Also steadily declining in recent decades: hunger, child mortality, and extreme poverty, liberating hundreds of millions from what are, by sheer numbers, among the pre-eminent threats facing humanity.”

No doubt, there are many legitimate stories about society’s shortcomings that need to reach the public, but in our view, today’s culture has become too pessimistic, rewarding a cynicism that goes beyond reason. The comedian Stephen Colbert, in one of his more serious moments, described the problem: “Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying ‘yes’ begins things. Saying ‘yes’ is how things grow.”

What does all this have to do with the digital health frontier, the theme of our weekly blog? In  health care IT, there are Mad Max and Star Trek versions of the future too. There are concerns about the overreach of facial recognition software, remote patient monitoring, impersonal robotic care, and ransomware attacks on hospitals. But there are also many positive developments that need attention as well. This week, Mayo Clinic Platform is hosting its first major conference to emphasize these developments. Our theme, “Exploring and Implementing New Ideas, New Technologies for a Healthier World” reflects our evidence-based optimism about the future of digital health care and its impact of patient care. While the conference will address the challenges of digitally transforming health care, it will also feature the value of using data to improve diagnostics and therapeutics, the power of data networks, and how AI is being used to improve clinical care for patients with cardiovascular disease. It will also highlight the MCP Accelerate Program, which is giving voice to innovative start ups that can take us into a Star Trek-like future.

Dr Leonard McCoy’s medical tricorder may not be in every physician’s black bag quite yet, but it’s coming.

But, can we also read the digital health headlines and envision how a tricorder might become reality? We're seeing early examples of how sensors and algorithms derived at population scale will result in an evolution of the EHR, making it more of a clinicians sidekick and less of an empty container for gathering data, which it is today.

Organizations will work together in a "federation" to develop and test new algorithms, then make them available on any tricorder.

The future will be Star Trek.

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