The Doctor of the Future


future-doctorWatching the news, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that humanity is fast approaching a turning point of great impact. I'm not speaking of ISIS or the Gaza-Israeli conflagration; conflicts such as this are older than history. Rather, I'm referring to the ever-growing polarity of our possible futures. On the one hand, you have a rapidly growing income disparity and a civilization utterly dependent on cheap energy which is about to lose its primary source of that energy; a world that is already so overflowing with people that in even rich, technologically advanced countries, such basic things as readily-available water cannot be counted upon; a food supply that is so trucked-up in technology that it now causes the diseases that proper nutrition once prevented; and a worldwide ecology already in the midst of chaotic change.

On the other hand, you have technology so advanced that robots will soon be able to replace men in dangerous, life-threatening jobs, saving countless lives; the possibility, albeit remote, of extending mankind's territory to other planets; genomic manipulation to the degree that natural selection can be replaced with social selection, and entirely  new species can be created; and artificial environments designed to replace the one that our overpopulation has begun to destroy.

The latter scenario is highly unlikely, except, perhaps, as a time-limited state in the longer progress of the former. We have already passed several points of no return in the alteration of our worldwide ecology, as CO2 levels have passed the 400 ppm mark, global temperature has reached the highest peak of this geologic period and shows no signs of stopping, and we are in the midst of a mass extinction of species. Our technology is nowhere near the point of replicating on any large scale, the vast diversity of the once-living earth, and that is critical to our survival at anywhere near our current population. Anyone who places their faith in unlimited technological progress in a reality circumscribed by limited natural resources is bound to be disappointed.

This shouldn't come as a surprise. From the beginning of history, civilizations have outgrown their habitats and outlived their creative energy, leading to periods of turmoil before another another order arises.

But the cry arises: "It will be different this time!"

Perhaps, perhaps. But not in the way the hopefuls imagine. The laws of physics and biology make it inescapable that we are headed for a post-industrial society of some sort. The only real question that remains is what that society will look like.

Certainly, the cheap transfer of goods and materials will cease. The days of raising chickens in the U.S., sending them to China for processing, and then shipping them back here to be sold will be long gone. With the disappearance of cheap energy, we will primarily be able only to move knowledge, not products, over long distances. Computational devices may remain, as they are less material- and energy-intensive, and can be supported by low-powered, decentralized power grids. Though they require exotic materials, they require them in small amounts, making their continued manufacture a possibility. Large-scale, centralized manufacturing will disappear, and if we manage our affairs right, we can arrive at a safe landing with local economies intact, using local resources for small-scale creation of goods. The post-industrial society, it turns out, will have quite a different flavor than the one first imagined by Daniel Bell, instead being closer to the future predicted by neo-Malthusians.

My interest, of course, is primarily in how this will affect health and health care delivery. A lot will change under this scenario, not all of it bad.

First of all, the changes in the transportation system will yield many positive results. With people walking and cycling more, obesity and many related sedentary lifestyle co-morbidities will greatly decrease. The incidence of diabetes, heart disease and cancers will drop significantly.

With energy-intensive factory farming techniques all but obliterated, a return to local production and harvesting of foods will further enable improved health through better nutrition. Indeed, a cultural shift in this direction has already begun, despite regulatory and economic  roadblocks that have been put into place to protect the Monsanto-dominated paradigm.

A return to a more pastoral and village-centered lifestyle will also be accompanied by a decrease in the anomie of life that is a direct outcome of our currently disconnected, disembodied and overly-embroidered lives. Less depression and anxiety almost always accompanies stronger social networks.

Of course, all of this is predicated on the maintenance of a society relatively protective of both individual liberties and cognizant of the need of our strong social obligations to one another. And it's not all sun-dappled rides on two wheelers through abundant fields of grain, either.

Drug production and distribution will be inhibited, putting those dependent on such drugs, such as insulin-dependent diabetics, at risk. Essential vaccines, such as pertussis and measles, would become scarce. And antibiotics, which are already on the wane would be hard to come by, though as I have previously mentioned, that's not necessarily much of a calamity. Certainly "advanced" medicine, with its exotic potions and technology-dependent surgical techniques, will go by the wayside.

I'll make the argument that, in fact, much of that medicine and technology is largely superfluous. The advanced medicine of the latter half of the 20th century and the first decade of this one has made no impact on human longevity, measured in productive years. Many of the surgeries and medicines that are employed today are only necessary because of the society in which we live. Change the parameters of that society, and these disorders would largely cease to flourish.

What does that leave us with, health-wise? It leaves us with a health-care delivery system which is supported by locally-available resources, and which utilizes low-technology manual interventions. It would also leave us with a health care system supported by a truly interdisciplinary population of healers, unrestricted by practice laws and insurances aimed more at preserving the power and income of a protected class of professionals.

In this health care milieu, there would be more shamans and crones and fewer psychiatric wards, more midwives and fewer cesareans. There would be doctors who know the properties of herbs, where they could be found, and how they could be prepared. Who know the use of food and nutrition to turn on the genes of health. Who know foodstuffs and how to use them to cure disease, and who know the human body and its anatomy, and who can alleviate pain with their hands. Doctors who can continue to work when the lights go out.

The fact of the matter is, the doctor of the future looks very familiar. And as I more frequently walk upon the Old Paths in search of the knowledge that can help my patients, I am increasingly cognizant that the wisdom I gather is not only for the benefit of my patients today, but also for the doctors of the future.