Imagining the Future of Medicine

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On what was quite possibly a beautiful Easter bank holiday, thousands of medicine enthusiasts flocked to the Royal Albert Hall. The reason I say ‘quite possibly’ is because the TEDMED conference they were headed to lasted over five hours (a fact that, incidentally, didn’t make it onto the leaflets). Host Dara Ó Briain surely wasn’t the only one in the room who didn’t realise it was Easter when he agreed to come, but the jam-packed programme made for an inspiring, if slightly over-long day out.

Twelve speakers each gave a fifteen-minute talk around the theme ‘Imagining the Future of Medicine’. The day was divided into three sessions, prefaced with titles that the organisers probably thought were really snazzy, but which invited amusement on the part of Ó Briain. The first session, called Thinking Outside the Box, saw art and science unite in a talk by Francis Wells, a cardiothoracic surgeon whose research is inspired by Leonardo Da Vinci’s anatomical drawings. Neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore’s delivered another impressive talk about the teenage brain and was assisted by the Islington Community Theatre. This powerful and emotional piece reminded us all how confusing adolescence can be. It successfully supported Blakemore’s point that the adolescent brain shouldn’t be ridiculed, but celebrated (a notion obviously immediately ignored by Ó Briain).

In the second session, Medicine Without Borders, enthusiastic surgeon Leo Cheng talked about the ‘Mercy Ships’, NGO hospital ships that sail to developing countries. All the staff work on a voluntary basis, but: “it even has a Starbucks – it’s cool!” On arrival, the doctors treat patients whose disease has got out of hand because of their lack of accessible healthcare.

Ali Parsa’s talk about Babylon, a smartphone app that aims to make healthcare accessible to everyone, was basically one big advert. Having said that, it felt like a genuine sneak peek into the not-so-far future. The app employs technology that already exists for healthcare purposes. It contains a nifty symptom database that lies somewhere between Yahoo Answers and a real doctor on the trustworthy scale. It also allows you to text pictures of your ailments to your GP, or to have a video consultation, if that’s more appropriate.

Jay Walker followed with a passionate talk about synthetic biology that might have scared some audience members (including yours truly) off. Walker told us that we’re on the brink of “Civilisation 2.0”: having taken control of the “information layer of life”, humankind is now “going to compete with evolution”. As is always the case with futuristic speeches, there is a chance that I’ll fondly think back to his talk, chuckling about his ideas about controlling the human body using smartphone apps. But of course, Walker had a point. These developments in biology are taking place, but he phrased this message in a way that would be better suited for a post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie pitch.

Luckily, according to behavioral neuroscientist Tali Sharot, our brains are wired to act on positive news, not negative. We ignore negative news as long as we can, as illustrated by a useful animation of shit hitting a fan. This is why warning labels on cigarette packets don’t work, climate change is still not high on our agendas, and why we’ll ignore the frightening aspects of Jay Walker’s talk in favour of the exciting ones.

Our optimistic brain may even be involved in our reluctance to talk about death, discussed in what Dara Ó Briain called possibly the most important talk of the day. In her tribute to the importance of palliative care, Katherine Sleeman pointed out the stark contrast between our preparation for a newborn baby and our unwillingness to prepare for death. Doctors are taught to ‘save lives’, to increase quantity of life rather than quality. Despite that, as Sleeman jokingly illustrated with a graph, the worldwide death rate is still at a solid 100%. So if someone is dying anyway, we’d all be better off focusing on care instead of cure.

For those brave souls who made it through all three sessions – the audience was visibly dwindling by this point – last speaker Ben Goldacre talked at lightning speed about the lack of transparency surrounding clinical trials. In the pharmaceutical industry, our preference for optimism is of course detrimental. Clinical trials with positive results are twice as likely to be published than negative ones, leading to a skewed assortment of drugs on the market, and prescriptions that do more harm than good.

By this point it was 7 pm, and your dutiful reporter was frankly getting a bit weary. After the mandatory thank you speech by the event’s organiser, an Imperial College graduate of medicine, we could finally all go home after what had been a long but interesting day that will surely inspire many a pub conversation still.

Imagining the Future of Medicine took place at the Royal Albert Hall on 21 April 2014. The stream of the entire event is available to watch on www.imaginemedicine.com.

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