Those as nerdy as I will recognize the title of this article as paraphrased from the introduction to the original Star Trek television series. That program, set in a technologically advanced future, was about a long journey of discovery. Perhaps the most peculiar aspect of that journey is that it had no particular destination. The voyagers were simply wandering aimlessly, hoping to run into something interesting. Consequently, they often found themselves woefully unprepared for the challenges they faced – an excellent means to provide dramatic tension to a fictional story, but a dubious strategy for real life.
A medical school curriculum is basically a journey. For our students, it’s a journey that will take them into an unknown future. Like any real journey (and in contrast to the intrepid Star Trek crew), establishing a destination is the first, critical step. A long journey may consist of many stages and stops along the way that demand our immediate attention, but those stages are only meaningful if they move the traveler toward some ultimate goal. That goal, of course, is to become effective, fulfilled providers of medical care to members of our society.
The students currently in medical school will be practicing into the mid 21st century. If we’re to provide them an education that will best prepare them to make meaningful contributions, we need to give some thought what that world will look like, and what it will require of them as physicians and professional leaders.
This was the topic of a presentation and subsequent discussion at our semi-annual Curricular Retreat this past week. In preparing some remarks to begin that discussion, I attempted to draw on changes that have occurred in the course of my career and use those observations to extrapolate into the future. I came up with five that I think are particularly relevant. This is, by no means, a complete list, but perhaps sets the tone and the challenge.
In no particular order:
- The role of physicians as purveyors of medical knowledge.
Knowledge is the fundamental fuel of medical practice, and the commodity that gives legitimacy to those providing care. A generation ago, medical knowledge was elusive. It had to be searched out, a process that was paper based and time consuming. Physicians were the primary source and conveyors of medical knowledge. People who wished to become physicians went to medical schools largely to seek out the knowledge and skills that were embodied in the practicing physicians who taught there.
That has all changed. Medical knowledge is now available, almost instantly, who anyone who wishes to find it. Physicians are no longer the primary source of that knowledge. They no longer hold any monopoly on knowledge.
- The expanding applications of Artificial Intelligence and robotic technology.
We were all impressed when Watson defeated chess masters and Jeopardy champions. In my field of cardiology, I think many dismissed automated interpretations of electrocardiograms as simple algorithm-driven time savers that would always require physician verification. The same is happening with respect to interpretation of diagnostic imaging such as chest x-rays and CT scans.
But AI is moving far beyond these applications that are based simply on prodigious memory storage and processing capacity. Applications are becoming much more sophisticated and are developing the ability to learn and adapt to dynamic situations. Diagnostic algorithms are available that will provide reasonable differential diagnoses for patient presentations, and computer interfaces are under development that are frighteningly life like in their ability to interpret individual patient speech and even facial expressions.
Robotic applications in the operating rooms and procedure suites hold the promise of increasing technical expertise and consistency while reducing infection rates. They also allow for interventions in locations where the human hands are simply incapable of performing.
Extrapolating forward, it’s not at all hard to imagine a world where most diagnostic imaging and many therapeutic interventions will require much less, or perhaps no human intervention.
- Our fundamental understanding of human disease.
For generations, physicians have understood and characterized disease states based on what they could observe clinically. “Consumption”, “Whooping Cough” and “Scarlet Fever” are examples of conditions described solely on symptoms and visual inspection. As the ability to image patients and do laboratory analyses improved, patients with Consumption were found to have pulmonary damage caused by Tuberculosis, Whooping Cough became Pertussis and Scarlet Fever became associated with streptococcus infection.
I have lectured students for over 20 years on the classification, diagnosis and management of cardiomyopathies based on morphologic distinctions (Dilated, Hypertrophic, Restrictive) established by clinical examination and imaging appearances. My teaching is now changing, based on new classification schemes based not on morphology, but on the genetic mutations that result in abnormal development of cardiac muscle cells and channels.
This is not only highly appropriate, but promises to bring genetically based therapeutics that promise to alter the natural history of these conditions in ways currently not available. It also represents an entirely new science, involving genomics and an understanding of sub-cellular processes that practitioners of the future will need to understand and develop comfort with if they’re to provide optimal care.
- Standardized approaches to disease management.
Physician order sheets used to be blank and on paper. They have not only become electronically integrated into patient management systems of various designs, but have also become prepopulated with standard orders for many, even most, clinical conditions. Often, all that’s required are patient specific data such as body size and renal function, and a physician’s signature (real or virtual) at the bottom of the page.
This is good in the sense that it promotes consistent and evidence based approaches to these conditions, and reduces transcription errors. However, it can also diminish the educational experience of medical students, and may not fully account for the needs of patients with multiple medical problems or individual characteristics that require an individualized approach.
- Expanding role of non-physicians in health care delivery.
The widespread availability of medical knowledge in general and guideline based management strategies specifically has allowed for other health care providers, such as nurse practitioners, pharmacists and physician assistants, to participate more fully many situations. Another example from my field would be the expanding role of nurse practitioners in heart failure clinics. NPs are fully capable of managing the introduction and maintenance of standard therapies in this population of patients who often require close and continuing surveillance. They do so very effectively, and their participation has been shown to improve patient functional status and reduce hospital admissions.
And so, what to do…
It’s important to state from the outset that this is all good. These five changes will make health care more effective and efficient. Like any development they have potential pitfalls, but, appropriately managed, they will bring significant advantages to our patients. It’s also important to recognize that they are not going away. Technologic progress does not wait for us, or any group, to be ready.
And so, we must engage some very difficult and disturbing questions, summarized in this slide I presented at our recent retreat:
Obviously, there are no definitive answers, but I provide a few thoughts that emerged from recent discussions.
- Students no longer need to undertake medical education in order to locate knowledge – they are quite capable of doing that on their own. They do, however, require guidance as to what will be relevant to their careers, and an ability to interpret and evaluate the merits of the tsunami of information that will come their way.
- AI has the potential to dramatically improve the delivery of care, but can be highly threatening, partly because applications can develop out of context and without clear applications. Physicians of the future need to be more than consumers of AI, they need to involved in the development of applications, the purpose of which should always be to advance care. To do so, they will need fundamental education that develops familiarity with the technology and its potential.
- Medical education has always been rooted in science, but the nature of that science is changing rapidly. Fundamental knowledge about normal human structure and function will always be required, but will need to extend beyond the superficially observable to penetrate the genetic and subcellular levels of normal and abnormal human function.
- As Physicians are needed less and less to interpret test results or manage standard, well-defined clinical issues, their role will extend to ensuring patients enter the care system appropriately, and managing situations where the complexity or multiplicity of issues goes beyond standard management. This will require them to be even more acute assessors of patients at the primary presentation, develop high levels of sensitivity to patient outcomes that deviate from optimal, and have a depth of understanding of the scientific underpinnings of disease and system management that will allow them to step in and provide “customized” management when required. Indeed, “personalized medicine” may become the primary focus of the physician of the future.
All this, and no doubt much more, will require a vastly different approach to medical education, one that we need to begin to consider today. The future is closing in very rapidly. I’ll end with a quote regarding the future role of physicians from someone who was always technologically ahead of his time and not shy about expressing disruptive views:
“The doctor of the future will give no medicine, but will instruct his patient in care of the human frame, in diet, and in the cause and prevention of disease.”
Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931)
Edison may have been somewhat overly optimistic about the “give no medicine” prediction, but was certainly perceptive in predicting fundamental change in approach. Over the next few months, we’re going to engage a series of dialogues about the doctor, and medical school, of the future, beginning with our recent retreat and this article. Please feel free to participate with your thoughts as we “boldly go” about charting a course into the next few decades of medical practice and education.
Anthony J. Sanfilippo, MD, FRCP(C)
Undergraduate Medical Education