On 14 March, academics and members of the public gathered at Emmanuel College to hear a panel of distinguished speakers discuss their personal visions of future healthcare in an event sponsored by the Science AAAS as part of the Cambridge Science Festival.

Tim Radford, former Science Editor at The Guardian, chaired the panel easing the transitions from robotics engineering and philosophy to biophysics and the practicalities of healthcare provision.

The last sixty years has seen tremendous change in the structure of health systems across the world. Speakers at this evening’s event predicted that the next ten to twenty years will see even more advances that will significantly affect the very nature of healthcare.

Professor Jian Dai of King’s College London, a mechanical engineer who has been working in the field of robotics for over twenty years, argued that the use of robotics will be the defining feature of 21st century healthcare.

There are currently 1750 surgical robots that are in regular clinical use worldwide and medical robotic research is underway in over 100 universities. Professor Dai said: “This century, there will be a momentous input from robots. In 2035, robotics for healthcare will feature in hospitals everywhere, like we see now in automobile factories.”

Professor Dame Athene Donald, a physicist at the University of Cambridge, threw light on what the physical sciences can offer biomedicine. She discussed how the contribution from the physical science community to biomedicine was less obvious than that from other areas, but cited microfluidics and biologically-tuned synthetic structures and surfaces as integral to development, adding: “We need to understand all the physical processes as well as the biological...These are the types of things that will transform the quality of life for people.”

Dr Anders Sandberg of the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford examined the motivations for developments in public healthcare, discussing the move from palliative to curative medicine in the 20th century and predicting a shift from preventative to enhancive medicine in the 21st century. The audience considered a future society benefiting from individual cognitive enhancement: “Perhaps cognitive enhancement is something you should pay for your neighbour, because the smarter we are, the better off we are together.”

Collective cognition re-emerged when Professor Martin Roland, GP and Chair of Health Services Research at the University of Cambridge said: “The doctors are going to become smarter, the patients are going to become smarter and they are going to need to develop new methods of communicating. We may be looking at a new generation that thinks very differently about how they communicate with professionals.”

The increased use of the internet by patients to research their condition could result in a generation of patients who know more about their condition than their doctor and a feedback system similar to the travel research website Trip Advisor. He suggested that these uses of the internet could lead to the development of specialist doctors and prompt them to improve their services. However, he cautioned that this could advantage articulate patients with the ability to interpret complex information on the web, with the ominous warning: “Quite a lot of what we have heard about this evening could lead to increased health inequalities.”

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