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Medicine on the Net
Average reader rating: 9  
by Robert E. Filman, NASA Ames Research Center 06 the future of Medicine

June 2001

From Isolation to Universal Connectivity
Medical skill has always been scarce. Originally, it was available only to those who could arrange to be with a practitioner. But technology has, over the past 170 years, provided successively better ways of providing medical service despite separation in time and space. The Internet, personal computers, wireless devices, high-resolution graphic displays, and similar technologies are just the current step in a process of distributed medicine that started with the telegraph.

Perhaps the most dramatic public example of telemedicine dates to the early space program. Forty years ago, astronauts strapped on biosensors, climbed into spacesuits, and headed into orbit, confident that their health would be monitored and any problems radioed to earthbound doctors. Back at the NASA Johnson Space Center, medical personnel tracked the astronauts' vital signs.

Of course, not everyone can arrange to have NASA monitoring his or her health. Using computers to bring medical skill to places without the right personnel has been a goal at least since the time of Project Mercury. It is worthwhile to contrast the shift in attitudes from then to now. In the 1960s, contemporary with the work that led to the Arpanet, researchers at institutions like Stanford, MIT, and Rutgers were creating medical expert systems, computer programs that performed tasks such as diagnosing ailments and recommending therapy, given patient and laboratory test data.

Today, some medical systems incorporate intelligent elements intellectually descended from that work. However, as in much of computer science, communication has come to dominate computation. The leading-edge frontier of medical applications is applying network technologies to bridge distances. A patient needing remote expertise is far more likely to get it by telecommunications technology (for example, than by an expert system.

By providing universal connectivity, satellite technology fostered the growth of telemedicine applications. The Internet adds the bandwidth required for rich interactions (such as transmitting pictures, visual motion, and even the beginnings of haptic response); the multiplicity of connection to allow collaboration among many distributed participants; and the data connectivity to enable access to information in elaborate, distributed histories.

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