If you are a Star Trek fan, you’ve seen the future of medicine, or at least how the writers imagine it will be. Painless, needleless injections are given by hypospray devices, right through clothing with no chance of cross-contamination. The medical tricorder provides an accurate diagnosis in seconds. Broken bones, illnesses, and injuries are quickly healed. Replacement parts, like Captain Picard’s artificial heart, are no big deal and can last for hundreds of years. There is even a holographic doctor filling in when no humanoid one is available, complete with a lousy bedside manner.
Dr. “Bones” McCoy, the first Star Trek physician, was appalled by the state of 20th-century medicine during a time-travel trip to the 1980s. Of course, we can feel the same as we look back over the history of medicine. Consider formerly popular treatments, like bloodletting. Today we wonder how anyone would think that was a good idea. (Actually, bloodletting is still used for a small number of conditions.)
Even today, we use modern technology like lasers, recombinant DNA, artificial intelligence, and 3D printers to produce treatments that replace some of the surgical procedures and pharmaceuticals used just a few years ago. I remember when synthetic human insulin, made in part by altering the DNA of bacteria, became available in the 1980s, replacing insulin extracted from beef and pork sources. This is even more remarkable if you realize that insulin was only discovered 60 years earlier. Before that discovery, juvenile onset diabetes (now known as Type I) cases were typically fatal in a short time.
Despite the current innovations, it may seem like we are a long way from Star Trek medicine, but we may be closer than you think. Many of us are measuring and tracking data like heart rate, blood pressure, and glucose levels with our smartphones. You can run an EKG (records heart rhythm) with an Apple Watch. Data from fitness trackers have even been used to assist in diagnosis and treatment.
The handful of metrics that can be collected with fitness devices and smartphones is just the beginning. In 2017, the XPRIZE Foundation awarded $2.6 million to an organization that came closest to meeting the requirements of a 21st-century Tricorder. The idea was to create a small non-invasive device that non-medical personnel could use to diagnose thirteen medical conditions and monitor five vital signs. Since no team was able to meet all the criteria for the grand prize, the remaining funds are being used to help develop the most promising devices. In the near future, doctors will be using small devices to diagnose illness in emergency rooms without blood tests and costly scans. Patients will be monitoring conditions like congestive heart failure at home.
The technology available today was beyond the imaginations of doctors and patients just a few decades ago. Thanks to Star Trek, we have a way to see the future now.