This article was published as a graduate student paper at Halmstad University, Sweden.
Empowered patients through online communities is a trend of innovation in healthcare presented by medical futurist Bertalan Meskó (2014), who notes that the only way to advance healthcare is for doctors to allow patients to help themselves and to participate in medical decisions.
The view of the ideal doctor-patient relationship as an equal partnership is a recent, major change. Besides shifting the power balance away from the doctor, it puts a spotlight on patient responsibility. Historically, it builds on the arising of lifestyle medicine after the year 2004 and on the recognition that lifestyle choices affect our health (Bynum, 2008).
The online communities of the 20th century (Meskó, 2014) belong together with what Walport (2016) calls the fifth revolution of information technology and are built on the basis of internationalism established in healthcare after World War II (Bynum, 2008). While the doctor represented full authority and decision power at the beginning of modern medicine (Walport, 2016), online communities driven by patients represent a priorly unimaginable degree of empowerment, made possible by the entwined development of technology and human consciousness.
Human consciousness has undoubtedly unleashed wondrous new technological innovations, giving patients access to a global amount of data that doubles every two years and is 50 times larger this year than only nine years ago (Austin and Kusumoto, 2016). Combining information with technological know-how, patients can now create platforms that respond to problems they themselves identify. This is a generalization, as even today, 30 years after the creation of the internet, the digital divide still persists in all societies, on the basis of factors like income level (Anderson and Kumar, 2019) or disability (Sourbati, 2012).
It might be worth reflecting on the fact that humans have been able to imagine and manifest unlimited technological advances, but have this far not found ways to assure humanity’s collective well-being or to expand their capacity for peaceful evolution. Harvard psychology professor Daniel Saphiro (2017) explains that what makes it difficult for us to work together on the global challenges we share is a mindset he calls the tribes effect, which pits groups against each other in a competition for resources, power, information, status or simply the pleasure of being right. This mindset turns us into tribal loyalists, adversaries instead of partners solving shared problems.
This imbalance between a strongly developed technological capacity and a tribal mindset reflects in the three main threats to humanity described by Prof. Klaus Schwab, Chairman of the World Economic Forum (World Government Summit, 2018). The first is the transition from a unique-conceptual to a multi-conceptual world, driven by a multitude of values and beliefs, which would probably not be a risk in the absence of the divisive tribal mind effect explained by Saphiro (2017). The second threat identified by Schwab (2018) is income disparity in terms of GDP, sustainability and inclusiveness. This would similarly be impossible in a united world, but is expected in a tribalist one. The third threat is cybersecurity and the development of AI, which Schwab (ibid.) considers as important to humankind as the discovery of fire, but a fire that can easily turn out of control the day we no longer understand the algorithms created by AI.
In light of these ideas, if I am to speculate on the future of the innovation of empowered patients (Meskó, 2014), I would say that the direction depends on our global capacity to evolve our mindset. We can expect our technology to advance infinitely faster in the next 100 years than it has done in the past two millennia (bigthinkeditor, 2011). Will human consciousness evolve just as fast, to balance the risks?
If not, then I am not sure if we have 100 years to speculate about. But if our answer is yes, then the future can be positive beyond imagination. Combining an evolved technology with an evolved human consciousness, I imagine that patients would no longer exist as we know them today. People would use technology to stay healthy, youthful and vital. In my view, this would however require much more than growing organs in dishes and nanorobots circulating in our blood (Meskó, 2014).
It would require that our evolved consciousness provides the wisdom needed to create advanced technology not because we can, but because it is needed for the good of all life forms. Our planet is one entangled organism and can’t function if any of its sensitive systems is seriously damaged. Wisdom would inform us how to unite and use technology in a way that enhances the vitality of all life and not of our species or group only.
Living in harmony with the entire planet would, in my opinion, require that humans know how to live a long, peaceful and healthy life, but also how to die gracefully when the meaning of our personal existence is completed. This would replace the chase for ego-immortality through cryonics or cyborgs, innovations described by Meskó (2014), and could free our creativity for solving the problems we have created instead of trying to flee a destroyed planet.
Humans, if open to wisdom and attuned to the good of all, would also know when to reproduce and when to abstain in order to avoid overpopulation. In a world driven by cooperation there would be no need to amass financial assets beyond actual needs and so there would be a real chance to create healthy prosperity for all. Without the constant stress of lacking funds, through the reallocation of e.g. military budgets and through AI-driven intelligent distribution of existing resources, our medical and social systems would become balanced. Our educational systems would focus as much on fostering the development of human empathy, generosity, altruism and wisdom as on encouraging technological creativity. Our politics, if freed from the tribal mindset, could dedicate itself to coordinating the healing and progress of all people in harmony with all forms of life.
Rishi Manchanda (2014) beautifully describes how we need to look upstream to the causes of disease in order to create health. He has identified living and working conditions as huge contributors to disease that, if addressed, would lead to great improvements in the rate of patient healing. But in my view we need to add many other factors to the upstream list. It is not possible even for the most dedicated doctor, social worker or policy maker to help a patient to better living conditions if the entire region is flooded or scorched by fires due to climate change. No profession can by itself solve the many interrelated problems of poverty, inequality, lack of education and jobs, information overwhelm, discrimination, extinction of species, depleted human and planetary microbiome, poisoning of the food chain, climate change, war and conflict, etc, that are all to be found “upstream”, as contributing factors to the widespread physical and mental disease we are facing today.
By addressing the common denominator of all these afflictions, namely the short-sighted actions and the entropy that arise from a hampered human consciousness, we could find the switch for a global systemic change. The innovative lifestyle change that would empower patients to solve complex upstream factors could be what Dr. Chopra (2020) calls the awakened lifestyle, meaning becoming aware of the huge possibilities beyond our bad habits and the confusion of our conditioned mind.
I conclude with the thought that empowerment, defined as finding the power of our unconditioned awareness, might be a planetary life-saving innovation if enough of us chose to embrace it.
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Aurora Carlson works as a counselor, life-coach, healer and teacher of Ayurveda, meditation and skillful living. She has created this platform to bring tools for well-being and self-realization to as many as possible. She holds a BA in Linguistics, a BSc in Social Work and is currently studying towards a Master’s in Public Health.