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Virtual medicine, real health

What seemed like science fiction in the 1950s—people communicating via television and performing complicated tasks remotely—is a reality in 2021. This issue is dedicated to exploring the revolution of remote work.

Photo by Anthony DeCarlo
Adrian Bonenberger

People have been using virtual communication for centuries to get things done. Before handwritten letters, there were couriers who committed messages to memory. Language itself is a way to share work or create new possibilities by coordinating action in time and space.

Visualization and coordination are supremely important in science and medicine, with recent technological advances simplifying tasks that were previously quite difficult. In the field of imaging, researchers can now see what’s happening inside the brain without having to place the patient or study subject inside a giant machine. Powerful microscopes have also made it possible to examine biological structures and processes down to the cellular level.

Meanwhile, virtual medicine has expanded the population of patients with access to certain types of care and treatment. Veterans who need regular therapy but live far from clinics without door-to-door transportation can now visit their therapists via smartphones or computers. And the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the adoption of telehealth technology, empowering patients to connect remotely with health care professionals and bringing virtual technology into the medical mainstream.

On the other hand, many observers are concerned about the ethical implications of some technological advances. For example, artificial intelligence (AI) in the form of machine learning algorithms and increased computing power has sped the analysis of so-called big data, advancing medical research at a pace undreamed of even a decade ago. Some ethicists worry that the rate of change has outstripped humans’ ability to identify danger or liability—releasing patient information unintentionally or codifying biases without context.

Clinicians, researchers, and medical faculties have never had such powerful resources at their fingertips. This issue looks at the opportunities opened to health care professionals by these resources while remaining mindful of their concurrent dangers.