This is a question that I’m often asked when talking to future physicians or people in general. Medicine has gone through some impressive, dynamic changes in the last ten to twenty years, even more since I started down this road. I truly believe that the next ten to twenty years will be even more incredible. From my experience the age of genetics, stem cell therapy, nanotechnology, robotics and information technology is quickly approaching and will forever change how physicians work with and treat their patients.
Genetics and Stem cell therapies have the potential in the next two decades to change the natural history of diseases that we have accepted since the beginning of medical care. I would be very surprised if in twenty years Cystic fibrosis, Type 1 Diabetes, Sickle Cell and other disease like them, are not just treatable, but curable. Nanotechnology is at such an early stage that it’s nearly impossible to imagine what wonders it may bring about. Two intriguing ones already being planned are artificial oxygen transport vessels that may replace the need for blood transfusion and artificial bacteria that search out and destroy germs invading our bodies. Robotics are already making their way into surgical centers around the world where doctors hand movements are being translated with millimeter accuracy through a robot that actually does the cutting in the operating room in front of the surgeon (or through links thousands of miles away). But what excites me the most is the use of information technology and artificial intelligence in medicine. At its heart medicine really is an IT technology and the possibilities of complex algorithms finding patterns in the vastness of available data may be the single most dynamic change in the care of patients in the next few decades?
So then what will be the role of physicians in the future? Well, the day of the solo community physician really is coming to a close. The sheer complexity and diverse nature of medical knowledge and it’s delivery in the 21st century cannot be easily done by one person alone. Specialization has become more and more commonplace even within specialties themselves. I ran into a pediatrician the other day who lists his title “General Pediatrician with special expertise in pervasive developmental delay in Asian children”. More and more surgeons specialize in just one or a few surgeries. That all being said, the core parts of what defines a physician are not going to change. A compassion for humans and a desire to heal. So the physician of the future will likely face a world filled with complex medical therapies which he or she will act as a partner with patients (and computer systems) in making decisions about possible pathways to choose. This is much different than the patriarchal doctor of the past, with the emphasis on science, outcomes and support rather than intuition, hierarchy and god-like power.