Medhum Monday: Imagining the Future (II)

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Today is the second half of Rebecca Cecala’s post on science fiction and medical humanities! As a reminder, Rebecca is a PhD candidate in American Studies at Penn State Harrisburg. She is currently writing her dissertation on the fight of New York City’s Bureau of Child Hygiene against infant mortality in the early twentieth-century, and teaches online courses for Eastern Mennonite University. Studying the mutual influences of science and religion on American culture is what she likes to do. You can finder her on Twitter: @MegBeckii and at her blog: http://sites.psu.edu/beckycecala/.

Thanks to my dissertation research, I spend a decent amount of time thinking about how revolutionary medical advances like germ theory helped early-twentieth century public health officials dream about a future modern, urban America characterized by health rather than disease. I’ve experienced an unexpected and intriguing overlap between my fascination with how those healthcare workers implemented new medical technologies and how my (predominantly nursing) students are using sci-fi to imagine the possible futures for twenty-first century technologies.

Each time I log on to the course and read responses from our students, I am reminded of the opportunities for reflection on the meaning in their own lives and careers that science fiction provides. I co-teach the course online with a friend of mine, and we are constantly tweaking the format to encourage students’ active participation and engagement. Readings and “viewings” for the course are organized along themes and tropes in the genre of science fiction: asking students to find ecological and theological themes in utopias and dystopias, or to consider the ethical implications of someday living and working alongside artificial intelligence. Not surprisingly, a question we often find ourselves asking is, “What kinds of possible futures in healthcare can you imagine?” Even the students who are initially hesitant or downright hostile toward science fiction have answers to this question. End-of-life care, prenatal testing, abortion, access to health insurance, and robotic technologies are just a few of the many timely and controversial topics that have surfaced in our students’ journals and short stories. In our discussions as a class each week, common concerns emerge: will we get to a point when medical personnel interact more with their diagnostic technologies than with their patients? What impact will that have on patient care? Is disease and decline part of what it means to be human? If future medical technologies ended common types of pain and suffering would we be redefining what it means to be human, as transhumanism suggests?

Just as in early twentieth-century New York City, where my mind spends half its time, advances in medical science and technology continue to hold incredible promise for the possible futures that our twenty-first century society can create. Nurses and other medical professionals work at the intersection of what new medical technologies will mean for our society, for what it means to live a healthy or a good life. After seeing the thoughtful discussions that have emerged from our students’ experience of science fiction, I am grateful that our current popular culture fosters this genre in any number of forms of media. Science fiction has its share of dystopias, for sure, but the insight gained from exploring a potential future dystopia can be preferable to that gained in a present one. In their short story assignment, several of our students have already dreamed up possible futures that include virtual reality medical training, where triage patients are treated in collaboration with humanoid medical robots. One of the larger themes in science fiction is that technology is only as good as its ability to improve quality of life. Maybe science fiction should be a required course for all students in the healthcare fields.

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