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Could Star Wars Medical Droids become a Reality?

Could Star Wars Medical Droids become a Reality?
June 23
13:44 2016

Science fiction is looking a lot more like science fact as smartphone apps, robots, and 3D printing threaten to replace a majority of today’s jobs.

Proximie, a program that enables surgeons to lead operations through a computer or smartphone (even when hundreds of miles away), is reminiscent of the robotic doctors in Star Wars.

“In Star Wars, there are no people practicing medicine. Caring for patients seems to have been taken over by machines,” says physician and Star Wars aficionado Anthony Jones. While he can identify some similarities between a “galaxy far, far away,” and our own medical futures, Jones doesn’t think there will ever come a time when the human doctor becomes obsolete.

Nothing compares to the human touch, to human compassion, says Jones. A robot might be able to perform tiny, dexterous tasks and process loads of information, but it cannot offer a sympathetic ear.

Jones cites several instances throughout the Star Wars series in which robotic doctors are mentioned:

  • At the end of Episode V, Luke loses a hand to Darth Vader’s lightsaber. “He is outfitted with a new cybernetic hand by an android surgeon,” says Jones.
  • At the beginning of Episode III, when Padmé gives birth to twins, “the delivery and her subsequent death are overseen by a midwife droid.”
  • After Darth Vader’s physical body is destroyed during his duel with former-mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi, droids fit him with cybernetic arms and legs.

NEKUUSvgDjFgOQ_2_bWhile George Lucas’ choice to replace doctors with robots seems commonplace in his fictional world, Jones points out that he hasn’t replaced pilots with robots.

“Why would Lucas have machines caring for patients yet retain human beings in the pilot seats of military spacecraft?” asks Jones. “Machines would offer reaction times and targeting far superior to any person.”

We are moving in this direction today with the use of drones in warfare – although humans still remain in control. Some may argue that trust in the “Force” is what ultimately determines the outcome of a battle, but Jones asks why the Force is absent in the medical realm.

Despite his questions, Jones isn’t anti-automation. He realizes that there are many technological advances in the works and in use today that can help doctors improve performance and care.

One such technology is a wearable device that can remotely track a patient’s health data. “Instead of coming in to the office, a patient with advanced lung disease such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) will be able to stay at home while a doctor reviews data on physical activity, respiratory function, and sleep quality. Such information will be very useful in designing more personalized care plans and intervening sooner when problems develop to prevent the need for hospitalization,” says Jones.

Another innovation Jones is excited about is a computer software/camera package that will be able to monitor a patient’s vital signs from the other side of the room – without making contact. “Patients who arrive in the emergency room will be assessed right away for heart rate, respiratory rate, temperature, and blood oxygen saturation. Such technology will ensure that very sick patients get immediate care, and the advantages during a flu pandemic or Ebola outbreak go without saying.”

A third technology is a futuristic brain-wave detecting machine that will allow patients to control a computer mouse by thought. “Simply by thinking of it,” Jones says, “even patients with paralyzing conditions such as spinal cord injuries or ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) will be able to control a wheelchair or turn the temperature in a room up or down.”

Almost-Docs-photoJones predicts that droids will change the future of medicine, and that “the students of the future will spend less time cramming their heads full of information, instead focusing on the psychology of illness. Someday soon we will realize that their most important contribution is often to empathize with patients.”

In the future, bots will collect vital signs and other information, while the doctor is free to focus on the empathetic and intuitive aspects of medicine that will always remain within the domain of humans.

“There is no doubt that technological innovations will continue to improve healthcare in dramatic ways,” says Jones. “But when you are sick you are also scared. And at least for the foreseeable future, there is no way that technology can substitute for a real human being, someone who feels what you are feeling.”

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