The Future of Medicine: Opinion of a Physician of 55 Years

During his attendance at the FutureMed Conference, Eric Anderson, MD, a physician of 55 years, saw the future - it's scary and complicated.

Photography by the author

I have seen the future. It’s scary. And complicated.

My attendance at the Gerontological Society of America’s 2012 Annual Scientific Meeting in November of last year and my presence at Singularity University’s 2013 FutureMed Conference in November of this year have given me different perspectives on how others (who are not in the trenches) see medical practice.

I found some of the gerontologists brought an almost naïve, gentle kindness to their thoughts that may have been shared by physicians in the 1950s before the brutality of business interceded. While I, as a physician worried about the solvency of Social Security, felt strongly that the retirement age for benefits needed to be increased, the gerontologists pointed out, equally strongly, that if that happened, it would fiercely impact the elderly poor by increasing the length of time they had to wait before they could draw benefits.

In arguing his point, one said, “We should not penalize people who somehow saved nothing for their retirement.” I remembered then that when Germany introduced this new concept of pensions for seniors in the 1880s starting at the age of 65, it was because Bismarck assured the Kaiser the majority of persons were dead by that age and would not throw a strain on the system.

And so I came to FutureMed 2013 in San Diego and discovered the boundless energy and infectious confidence of the scientists presenting their own version of Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock completely unrelated to Toffler’s 1970 thoughts that suggested the future would be bleak. Toffler coined the term “information overload” and felt people would be isolated and depressed from the data barrage of the future. Many authorities have, of course, refuted Toffler’s views.

I am listening to some of those authorities now. They don’t see dreadful isolation from computers but rather helpful communication. The speakers are articulate and very optimistic. Their intelligence is palpable, their resumes impressive; they all look as if they could snag an MBA in Health Delivery easily given 30 minutes reading time on an airplane. One of the presenters is actually a boy wonder: 17-year-old Eric Chen was the Grand Prize Winner out of thousands of entries in the Google Science Fair. He researched the problem of flu epidemics and identified a number of “novel, potent endonuclease inhibitors” to lay the ground for optimizing anti-flu candidates. Wow!

Those making presentations at FutureMed exhibit a self-confidence not unlike I once saw in a young emergency room doctor around the time ERs were being staffed with full-time ER physicians. He put his hand on my shoulder, looked at me with glowing eyes and said earnestly, “We can keep anyone alive for a whole hour no matter the problem. It’s a new world out there!”

I think of this as I listen at FutureMed: All this science; all this new, therapeutic equipment; all those coming inventions — can we afford our future?

Those thoughts — of one born in 1932 who was a child during the Great Depression and who as a frugal, perhaps, cheap ex-Scottish immigrant came to the United States in 1960, smarting under the stinginess of the British National Health Service — did not last long. As I said, the confidence of the speakers was contagious, their aims admirable and their ideas fascinating. I’d like to tell you about all this in my next article.

The Andersons live in San Diego. Eric is a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, he was a senior contributing editor at Physician’s Management for ten years and a contributing editor to Geriatrics and to Medical Tribune at the same time. He has written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.