Precision Medicine: Savior Or Snake Oil?

Precision medicine

Precision medicine is an emerging healthcare approach based on the customization of disease treatment, prevention, and research that considers individual variability in environment, lifestyle, and genes. It has the potential to completely upend the diagnosis and management of people’s health—which makes it a lightening rod for supporters and skeptics. That’s why we studied the American people’s interest in it.

But before we dig into the implications of what we learned, let’s get some perspective from supporters and skeptics alike.

Supporters say

“Doctors have always recognized that every patient is unique, and doctors have always tried to tailor their treatments as best they can to individuals. You can match a blood transfusion to a blood type. That was an important discovery. What if matching a cancer cure to our genetic code was just as easy, just as standard? What if figuring out the right dose of medicine was as simple as taking our temperature?”

“And that’s the promise of precision medicine — delivering the right treatments, at the right time, every time to the right person. And for a small but growing number of patients, that future is already here. Eight out of ten people with one type of leukemia saw white blood cell counts return to normal with a new drug targeting a specific gene. Genetic testing for HIV patients helps doctors determine who will be helped by a new antiviral drug, and who will experience harmful side effects. And, advances in technology means these breakthroughs could just be the beginning.”

Those were the remarks of President Barak Obama at the launch of the Precision Medicine Initiative. He’s an advocate, if not an outright fan, of precision medicine. But precision medicine also has its skeptics.

Skeptics scoff

Jeffrey Matthews, chair of the department of surgery at the University of Chicago, warns in a quote in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) that “it is being oversold and overhyped, and it’s creating unrealistic expectations on the part of patients and clinicians.” Mayo Clinic physician Michael Joyner, writing in the New York Times, suggests “Unfortunately, precision medicine is unlikely to make most of us healthier.” He thinks the focus on this “moonshot” initiative is misguided. “Medical problems and their underlying biology are not linear engineering exercises, and solving them is more than a matter of vision, money and will.”

“We would be better off,” he proposes, “directing more resources to understanding what it takes to solve messy problems about how humans behave as individuals and groups. Ultimately, we almost certainly have more control over how much we exercise, eat, drink and smoke than we do over our genomes.”

Americans are intrigued

Whether you are fan or skeptic, the promise of precision medicine has great appeal to the public. In a recent study, we found that 83% of Americans “would be willing to share personal health data such as medical history and genetic information in order to…

  • Help develop better medical treatments for the wider population;
  • Receive more customized treatment regimens;
  • Understand risk of developing certain medical conditions in the future.”

But when push came to shove, we also found that there were concerns about which information would be shared and how it might be used. And we discovered that the value proposition is not yet clear.

Our research leads us to three important conclusions:

  1. The idea of precision medicine, while appealing on the surface, will have to be persuasively communicated;
  2. Handling people’s sensitivities about privacy will determine the success or failure of an offer;
  3. People will need to understand exactly how the data they are sharing will benefit them.

To learn more about Americans’ take on precision medicine, and the implications of it, download our whitepaper People’s perceptions of precision medicine: optimistic, but cautious or contact us.

Download Whitepaper