Star Trek: Beyond – A Doctor’s View

Star Trek: Beyond – A Doctor’s View

Stardate 70022.2 (July 22, 2016)

McCoy is always ready with words of encouragement. Courtesy, Paramount Pictures © 2016

“Alien despots hell-bent on killing us. Deadly space viruses. Anomalies that can wipe us out in an instant.”

 - Dr. McCoy from Star Trek: Beyond

[SPOILER ALERT: If you have not seen the movie, read below with caution.]

Imagine you’re on your own, adrift somewhere in a universe on a planet that was built to nurture, affect, harm or kill you in unlimited ways, and you’ve come down with an unfamiliar rash. Or cough. Or infection that just won’t go away.  It’d be nice to have a device that could give you some insight into what was going on, wouldn’t it?

In the Star Trek universe, such a device was imagined fifty years ago by creator Gene Roddenberry, the latest version of which was used by Dr. McCoy in the opening scene of Star Trek: Beyond.  Our beloved doctor (played once again with paranoia and pathos by Karl Urban) uses his medical Tricorder to examine Captain Kirk as he rushes through the corridors of the Enterprise to the bridge.  Through the device’s instant scanning capabilities, McCoy is able to deliver the appropriate medical evaluation: “You look like crap.”

Of course, an advanced medical device or even a doctor isn’t usually necessary to arrive at such a detailed diagnosis, but it doesn’t hurt. Where the Tricorder and other futuristic medical devices come in handy time and again in the history (and future) of the Star Trek canon, is in those moments when someone is ill or in dire straits, and an immediate diagnosis is needed.

More often than not, medical situations happen outside the doctor’s office. Courtesy, Paramount Pictures © 2016

For instance, in a later scene in Star Trek: Beyond, Dr. McCoy scans Mr. Spock with what might be seen as the next generation of the Tricorder.  With the use of a hand-held MRI machine, Bones analyzes Spock’s injuries and discovers that he has suffered a life-threatening wound. McCoy immediately improvises a medical-surgical treatment, scrounging pieces from a wrecked spacecraft and lashing them together, thereby treating the wound while giving appropriate anesthesia to his patient.

The United Federation of Planets is a peaceful organization, and the thousands of people employed by its Starfleet are expected to explore the universe and defend the Federation from those that may be hostile to it or others.  As it reaches farther into the universe, the Starfleet must deal with death, wounds and illnesses, much like real military and humanitarian organizations today on Earth. This is where a device like the medical Tricorder could become an indispensable tool for millions of real people living today.

An exciting medical future at hand. Courtesy, Paramount Pictures © 2016

This need for on-the-spot medical management, from minor diagnoses to life-saving cures, is at the heart of the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE, a $10M competition incentivizing teams to create a real Tricorder for consumer, professional and military use. With the rise of big data management, new medical imaging and scanning technologies, competing teams are able to make science fiction science reality.

Through our 21st Century medical innovators, miraculous medical systems will be in our hands soon and eventually part of the 23rd Century and beyond. It’s this desire to see a brighter future for humanity through technological progress that has makes Star Trek: Beyond and the larger science fiction genre so effective and compelling.  Through concepts like warp speed, teleportation, satellite communications, cloaking devices and more, we are able to imagine innovations that will revolutionize the human experience and extend its reach far beyond our planet, our solar system and our galaxy.

A good doctor is hard to find. Courtesy, Paramount Pictures © 2016

But medical professionals should not feel too concerned by the Tricorder becoming a reality. In fact, Star Trek: Beyond reminds us that nurses and doctors will still be a crucial part of keeping humanity (and other species) alive and healthy.  The Tricorder will bring about a more informed patient-doctor relationship and usher in a new era of health data management and analysis.  And while Dr. McCoy’s bedside manner is often more gruff than Southern Gentleman, his caring and competence for everything from a battle wound to a case of Andorian Shingles or a difficult personal relationship proves that access to a good doctor is something we should all rely on.

After all, each of us is adrift somewhere in the universe, on a planet that was built to challenge and support us in many ways. Fortunately, we have the dreams of visionaries like Gene Roddenberry and the skills of innovators competing for the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE to count on.  One day, sooner than we think, we’ll all benefit from reaching far beyond our wildest expectations. 

Just keep an eye on your symptoms. Those stomach cramps could just be food poisoning…or you could have the Terothka Virus.

Dr. Erik Viirre is a physician at the University of California, San Diego and is the Medical Director of the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE. David Zweig is the Senior Creative Director at XPRIZE.

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