President, Personalized Medicine Coalition
When it comes to medicine, one size does not fit all. Treatments and prevention strategies that help some are ineffective for others.
We’ve known this for a long time. William Osler (1849-1919), a Canadian physician sometimes referred to as the father of modern medicine, once wrote that “variability is the law of life. As no two faces are the same,” he noted, “so no two bodies are alike, and no two individuals react alike and behave alike under the abnormal conditions which we know as disease.”
But until the beginning of the 21st century following the mapping of the human genome, physicians lacked the tools and technologies necessary to understand the reasons for variability among patients. Physicians treated all patients essentially the same, relying on trial and error to find the right solution to a particular patient’s predicament.
Personalized medicine allows us to do much better. Also called precision or individualized medicine, personalized medicine is an evolving field in which physicians use diagnostic tests, often but not always genetic, to determine which medical treatments will work best for each patient. By combining data from diagnostic tests with an individual’s medical history, circumstances, and values, health care providers can develop targeted treatment and prevention plans.
Genetic testing, for example, can help physicians predict how a patient’s body may metabolize certain drugs. Genetically-guided cancer therapies can target the unique set of molecular variables that drive a patient’s particular cancer. And advanced computing techniques that aggregate and compare real-world data can help tailor health care interventions more closely to the wide range of biological and environmental characteristics that impact human health.
Health systems are still developing and adopting the updated policies and procedures that are necessary to facilitate the widespread implementation of personalized medicine. Change does not come easily. But because biology is complex, it demands that we employ more sophisticated approaches to treating patients.
As we learn more about the root causes of certain diseases and develop new ways of delivering health care to patients at home and in physicians’ offices, proponents of personalized medicine envision a new era of medicine in keeping with Osler’s appreciation of the principle of individual variation. It will be one that promises better outcomes for patients at lower systemic costs because medicine in the future will become more targeted and more efficient.