“Precision medicine” sounds like science fiction. The phrase evokes images of laser surgeries, robot doctors, healing pods, and medicine that looks more like magic than science. However, precision medicine is the future of healthcare, and offers life-changing treatments for patients with a wide variety of health problems. In fact, there are already thousands of precision medicine providers in the U.S. performing services for hundreds of thousands of patients. What does precision medicine mean for your health, now and in the future? Keep reading to find out.
What is Precision Medicine, Precisely?
If you’ve heard of precision medicine, you probably envision genomic medicine—or medicine that focuses on your genetic codes and associated predispositions. That’s correct, but precision medicine is much more than that. Precision medicine is a new way of thinking about medical treatment. It takes into consideration a number of factors when figuring out how best to treat a patient, including genomics, environment, and lifestyle. This approach allows doctors and researchers to predict which treatment and prevention strategies for a particular disease will work in which groups of people. It runs counter to the one-size-fits-all approach currently predominant healthcare, which develops treatments for the average person.
In short, precision medicine is, as Dr. John Halamka says, “the right care in the right setting from the right provider at the right time.” Precision medicine attempts to know everything about patients before a treatment is prescribed. Diagnostic testing or other forms of molecular or cellular analysis help physicians—sometimes assisted by artificial intelligence—to prescribe the medication or therapy that will be the most beneficial to the patient.
Medicine without Precision
Physicians have known for nearly 200 years that no drug affects every patient in the same way. Yet, the current standard for determining which drugs work best for which patients is still mostly based on trial and error. In contrast, a precision medicine approach aggregates information about the patient and others like them. Using this method, physicians can make a much more “educated guess” about what treatments will or won’t work for a patient.
For example, many individuals diagnosed with depression try several different drugs before they find one that works for them. These medications don’t work instantly—effects are usually not evident for at least two weeks. So if a patient tries several different medications before finding the right fit, it could mean enduring months of symptoms with no relief. Precision medicine can help find the right drug sooner, not to mention saving on prescription costs.
For cancer patients, the stakes are even higher. By employing precision medicine, genetic profiling can help identify treatments that will be most likely to help—and just as importantly, eliminate those that won’t. This could spare patients from undergoing ineffective treatments, and the extreme side effects that come with them.
Precision Medicine or Personalized Medicine?
These examples beg the question: “Does precision medicine make treatments or medicines that are tailored specifically for me?” Like most things, it’s complicated. Precision medicine is basically Big Data medicine. Precision medicine tries to take in as much data about you as possible. Then it uses artificial intelligence (AI) to find connections between your information and the information of others. In doing so, it allows doctors and medical researchers to determine what diseases you are likely to experience and what treatments will work the best for you.
However, these treatments aren’t specifically made for you or any other patient. They’re made for people like you or people with similar ‘data doubles.’ The running premise of precision medicine is that people with similar genetic codes who live in similar areas and have similar lifestyles will most likely have similar reactions to diseases, therapies, and medications.
The Possibilities of Precision Medicine
Precision medicine offers a number of incredible possibilities for patient health and the healthcare industry:
Finding new connections
By pooling large amounts of genomic data, researchers may be able to identify previously unknown genetic causes of diseases. As recent research suggests, AI has an amazing ability to reveal genetic patterns where none previously existed.
Precision medicine could reveal individuals’ genetic risk factors for chronic disease before it becomes an issue. Instead of managing chronic illnesses, we could take steps to prevent them altogether.
Given that we could find more patterns between diseases, genetics, locations, and lifestyles, precision medicine would allow for earlier disease detection. And early detection is a key factor when considering the potency of certain treatments. With precision medicine, we could diagnose and treat diseases much more quickly than we do now.
We can discover genetic material and other factors—like geographic locations and lifestyle decisions—that prevent illness. For example, some people have certain genes that protect them against diseases or prevent them from “expressing” compromised genes. Studying these differences may help us to learn how to protect others against those diseases.
Precision medicine could allow researchers to create more targeted medications. They could Therapies could develop therapies in a faster and more efficient way by targeting certain genetic problems, rather than using the traditional trial-and-error method.
Lower healthcare costs
If we can change the focus of healthcare to prevention rather than treatment of disease, while eliminating treatments that are likely to be ineffective, there’s a good chance that healthcare costs could be significantly reduced.
Precision medicine could also inform personalized diets or suggest lifestyle changes to optimize health.
Precision Medicine and Big Data
With its numerous benefits, why isn’t precision medicine already fully integrated into healthcare? Two of the largest issues revolve around reimbursement as well as data storage and data privacy.
In order for precision medicine to reach its potential, prices need to continue to be reduced through volume and greater reimbursement from payers. Also, researchers need to accumulate a massive amount of data about people. But where will they store all of that information? Who would pay for the storage? Where would it be located? How will companies share this information? Who would have access to it? Furthermore, when this much data is being stored, there’s a high risk of it being stolen or sold. In short, precision medicine will require a lot of infrastructural—and regulatory—support before it can reach its full potential.