I loved the movie Big Hero 6. If you didn’t watch it, you should because it’s joyful and adorable and it has a snuggly robot. And who doesn’t like snuggly robots? Terrorists, that’s who.
But my point, and I do have one, is that the big snuggly robot, Baymax, was originally created to be a medical care robot. He’s part nurse, part… non-edible marshmallow man, if you will. It’ll be amazing when science can build a robot that can pop out of a box and diagnose you. Have strange symptoms? Dr. Beverly Crusher whips out the tricorder. Have a doctor shortage? Build snuggly robots and have doctors for when patients need the human touch (or for surgeries for when robots- or humans- are broken) Think they’re wrong? Good luck with that; they’ve finally got this medicine thing nailed, and they ‘ll be able to treat you too fast for you to doubt them. You’ll come around in no time when you just no longer get sick. Homeopathy, mystic crystal healing, and whatever the fuck Deepak Chopra is ranting about this week are all gone.
It’s amazing to hope that one day this could be reality.
But man, science is just not there yet. Not even god damn close.
I bring up robots because I attended DARPA electronics conference last year, and the tasks they give the robots are basic. Open a door. Pick up a screwdriver and drill a hole in a piece of plywood. Walk up stairs. They complicated this a few levels by simulating a disaster zone in which the robot was designed to operate. The results were that sometimes the robots made it through this obstacle course completing these handful of tasks and the engineers who worked on this for a year were joyously happy.
But sometimes… epic disaster.
One of the most entertaining things to come out of the weekend was a video compilation of multi-million dollar robots falling disastrously, much to the horror and distress of the engineers who were, presumably, living on Red Bull and shattered dreams. Entertaining to us, tears for them.
What does this demonstrate to me? Doctors are at the same state of advancement as these robots. As technologically advanced as we are now, doctors and scientists still epically fall.
How does that translate for the human being who’s in pain, suffering and looking for answers via Google MD because they can’t find them via their doctor?
This weekend I was at SXSW on a panel with James Hamblin from The Atlantic, and he pointed out (paraphrasing) that alternative medicine may be born out of the shortcomings of the medical system. It’s a good point. Doctors are good, the best resource we have for helping keep people healthy. But they’re also human. They’re flawed, they have biases, and they’re also working in a system that limits their time and resources. They are limited by what science currently knows, how fast clinical trials can move, the regulations in the system (that are designed to keep people safe but sometimes keep medicine away from desperate patients), and the sad reality?
Sometimes the best, most intelligent doctors with all the training in the world, look a patient in the eye who’s suffering and desperate for answers, and despite all their training, just don’t goddamn know.
I’ve been one of those patients more than once in my life. I empathize.
I’ve mentioned before that it’s sent me looking for answers outside of mainstream medicine (while still working with my doctors) because I was vulnerable and desperate. Even for a well educated person, desperation and vulnerability will send you hunting in the bowels of the internet for alternative answers when conventional medicine fails.
Right now you go into the doctor’s office and you have some weird set of symptoms that’s hard to diagnose. Something’s not showing up on scans, there’s no way to measure what’s happening in your body. Six different doctors give you six different answers, and doctors legitimately have to struggle with limited time and resources that they’re juggling between you and all their other patients to figure out what’s wrong. It’s all in your head. The symptoms point to a rare ailment, but it can’t be the rare ailment because it’s rare (true story, I’ve been told this). You just need to exercise and drink less caffeine and it’ll all go away even though there’s nothing in the medical literature to suggest that’s a cure for this. You’re too young to be in this much pain. Let’s treat for the easy thing even though it’s probably not the easy thing just because then we can rule the easy thing out… even if that’s just wasting your time, money, and another month of pain.
The symptoms are all over the map, what one thing explains this many things?
Or can one person have multiple things wrong with them?
Do we even have a test for this yet?
You, a presumably honest patient, are at the whim of a doctor who’s dealt with twenty other patients today. Some thought they were dying from a cold. Some were drug seeking. Some looked like they were drug seeking and were legitimately miserable and doctors are bad at telling the difference. Some patients left with antibiotics for a viral infection. Some left with no answers at all.
Life is not fun when it’s been turned into your own personal episode of House. Entertaining TV, tears for you.
And then skeptics occasionally have the audacity to tell people who turn to alternative medicine (even something as ridiculous as homeopathy with no fucking medicine in it) that they’re silly for not trusting doctors 100% of the time.
(Just a reminder from Tim Minchin, this is not my endorsement of alternative medicine).
Credit: Refutations To Anti-Vaccine Memes
Doctors are great, but they’re also fallible. They’re only as good as the answers available to them.
What happens when, one day, all the answers are readily available?
How much harder would it be for an alt med practitioner to step in if we lived in an era where little Baymax from Big Hero 6 was real? Or even before Baymax (given the epic robot fails at DARPA, it’s pretty far off), what happens when the medical system evolves to work a lot better?
What happens when we have a name, a rapid test, and an ability to manage every disorder? Medicine gets better every day, but there are still diseases that sometimes take five years or more to diagnose. Some diseases take years to struggle with medications to manage. What happens when we have readily available and affordable testing at birth for all diseases, when we can track the courses of disease with the touch of a button and automatically change the course of treatment? What happens when the pharmaceutical industry has gotten so much better that we can figure out what medication to give you just by scanning you… and the drugs’ effects are better than the side effects.
Where do you think the alternative medicine racket will be then?
Technology is advancing all the time, and we can’t get enough of it. Boston Dynamic recently showed off a new robot that- in true Boston style- can handle getting beaten around with a hockey stick without falling down epically… It’s better than the robots-of-the-engineers-misery in the videos, but it’s also not Baymax. You think tricorders are just for Star Trek? Nope, they’re real and they’re fantastic. They’re a lot better than a stethoscope, but they’re also not the instant-diagnose-everything-machines that they were in Star Trek.
Technology and medicine are getting better. The shortcomings in the medical systems are going away. Doctors are increasing their knowledge base with both technology and research. And one day, when six different doctors can all look at the same patient and use technology and our knowledge base to diagnose a patient perfectly and consistently, alternative medicine will see its last day.
Until then, I’m still dreaming of Baymax and telling people that homeopathy has no fucking medicine in it.