We live in an advanced, high-tech society. Our cars can drive themselves. Our phones tell us how to get to any destination. Alexa controls our homes with a single command. Despite all this “advancement,” we don’t have health care – not real health care, anyway.
What we have is “sick care”– the treatment of disease only after symptoms appear. Think about it: when do you go to the doctor? After you’re already sick. And in many cases, that’s too late. Doctors can advise healthy individuals to adopt certain lifestyles to minimize risks, but they don’t truly know what’s coming, or when. This reactive approach undoubtedly contributes to our soaring health care costs, with expensive drug treatments as the primary method for staving off the worst consequences of disease.
The U.S. spends twice as much on health care compared to other developed nations, yet incidences of obesity, sleep disorders, traumatic brain injuries, neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia, and drug addiction are rising, straining health care spending, taking lives, and destroying families and communities. In a world where there seems to be a scientific solution to everything, there must be another way to solve what amounts to a full-blown health crisis in 2018 America. Researchers are working to create one: it’s called precision health.
Precision health aims to go beyond precision medicine, which is the ability to customize treatments for individual patients. Like precision medicine, precision health is personalized and patient-centered, but rather than diagnosing and treating people once they are sick, precision health monitors a person’s baseline measure of health. And if a person moves away from his or her baseline, we can detect disease before symptoms ever present.
The key to measuring a person’s baseline health is through the use of biomarkers, or proteins found in blood, that can only be seen at a molecular level with extremely sensitive technology. These biomarkers can potentially identify risks ranging from heart disease to cancer, to neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s and dementia.
One of the big breakthroughs that can come from precision health is the ability to identify when people are at risk of addiction, a neurological phenomenon that is tragically afflicting communities across the country in the form of an opioid epidemic. Imagine if your doctor could look at your blood and know if you’re more likely to become addicted to your pain pills after surgery. That could be the future of medicine.
Precision health would also tackle one of the biggest and most unjust social problems we face: health inequity. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “There is ample evidence that social factors, including education, employment status, income level, gender and ethnicity have a marked influence on how healthy a person is.”
The skyrocketing costs of drugs place life-saving treatment out-of-reach for millions of people, especially in developing countries. Being able to identify health risks with only a pinprick of blood, and advise individuals on their proper course of action, would bring down costs immensely and deliver proactive, effective care to the world’s poorest people. At the same time, in developed countries, precision health would reduce the financial burden of government healthcare provision enormously, allowing greater investment in proactive, widely-available measures rather than high-priced drugs and medical procedures that drive up costs for everyone.
Research into using biomarkers to identify risks of disease is proceeding at a steady, progressive pace. In the world of biotech and health care innovation, the competition for capital and media attention is fierce. Companies carrying out this research do themselves and the cause no good if they mislead the public on the extent of their advancement, in a short-sighted effort to gain funds or publicity. A process of peer review and scrutiny needs to hold researchers and companies accountable.
With precision health we have the potential to transform – to invent – health care by 2030, reducing costs by 40 percent, increasing access by 60 percent, and increasing productive life expectancy by eight years. This vision is exactly what led me to found Powering Precision Health, a movement bringing together leading thinkers and ground-breaking researchers who share my passion for transforming health care. It’s possible. So let’s make it happen.
Kevin Hrusovsky is founder and chairman of Powering Precision Health.