Personalized medicine is the future. It is where the science is going. It is where the technology is going. It is where doctors and patients will want to go. Yet unfortunately for many of us, this is not where the Obama administration wants to go.
First, the good news. Biosensors that can be worn on clothing or jewelry, or held against the skin by a Band-Aid-like patch, or inserted beneath the skin are capable of monitoring a whole host of chronic diseases. Among the technologies that have been, or soon will be, developed are devices that can continuously monitor the blood glucose levels in diabetics; the rate of breathing, blood oxygen saturation, etc., of asthmatics; and the heart rate and other parameters of patients with heart disease. There are even heart attack and stroke attack detectors. In some cases, personalized devices can activate therapies. A wearable, automatic insulin pump can be coupled with a blood glucose measuring device to create a virtual artificial pancreas. (See this fascinating summary.)
The science of genetics is also about to explode. There are as many as 1,300 genetic tests currently available that relate to about 2,500 medical conditions. Gene tests can predict your probability of getting particular types of cancer, whether you will respond to routine chemotherapy or whether there is a special therapy that only works on people with your particular physiology. The days when experts argued over whether men should get a prostate cancer test could be long gone. A simple test can tell if you have a high probability of contracting the disease, or a low one.
The Food and Drug Administration is considering removing prescription requirements for medications that treat common conditions, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, asthma, migraines and high cholesterol. This means that you would be able to go to your local pharmacy, fill out a questionnaire, receive a diagnosis and purchase a medication, all without intervention or direction from a physician.
As a doctor, I think this is a very bad idea. Although it is true that diagnoses are often missed — reports estimate that as many as 7 million diabetics in the U.S. remain undiagnosed — and although easier access to drugs could theoretically encourage patients to take their medications, I am concerned that expanding over-the-counter access will lead to wrong diagnoses with improper treatments, which carry side effects.
Remember, medicine is an art, practiced on an individual basis. A medication that works for one person doesn’t always work for another. I am constantly changing cholesterol or high blood pressure medications for my patients because of unanticipated side effects such as muscle aches or dizziness.
Lack of follow up
What would happen if I weren’t involved to monitor treatments and make necessary changes? The upfront cost savings from cutting out doctors and their office fees will be more than made up by longer term costs of improper diagnoses or unmonitored complications.
Advocates of expanding over-the-counter medications point to aspirin or allergy drugs as examples that have proved successful without a doctor’s prescription. But for every patient who is glad not to have to visit my office for an allergy prescription, I can point to another patient who has suffered side effects like fatigue that he or she didn’t realize were due to that same pill, or where the allergic reaction was due instead to food.
The fact that common painkillers have been available over the counter for decades also doesn’t provide a convincing argument for bypassing prescriptions. Consider that more than 100,000 Americans are hospitalized every year due to bleeding from aspirin or other OTC non-steroidal anti-inflammatory pills, and acetaminophen is the No. 1 cause of acute liver failure.Continue reading…
Our day-to-day lives were reformatted when the consumer mobile wireless device era, beyond cell phones, was ushered in by iPods in 2001 and followed in short order by Blackberries, smartphones, e-readers, and tablets. Nurturing our peripatetic existence, we could immediately and virtually anywhere download music, books, videos, periodical, games and movies. Television is soon to follow. But these forms of digital communication and entertainment are a far cry from digitizing people.
This decade will be marked by the intersection of the digital world with the medical cocoon, which until now have been largely circulating in separate orbits. The remarkable digital infrastructure that has been built—which includes broadband Internet, cloud and supercomputing, pluripotent mobile devices and social networking― is ripe to provide the framework for a most extraordinary upgrade and rebooting of medicine.
When I was finishing my internal medicine training in 1982 the term “digital” in medicine referred exclusively to the rectal examination. Now, 3 decades later, there are 4 domains of what comprises digital medicine―genomics, wireless sensors and devices, imaging and health information systems. Each of these digital medical technologies are on exceptionally accelerated growth curves. In 2012, complete DNA sequencing of all 6 billion bases of a diploid human genome will be accomplished in 2 hours at a price well under $4000. Already DNA sequencing is having an impact in medicine for specific gene-drug interactions, targeting of cancer therapy by defining tumor driver mutations (comparing somatic versus germ-line DNA), and demystifying life-threatening idiopathic diseases. Just a few years ago wireless sensors got their start for consumers in the health and fitness space, with wearable accelerometers in running shoes, bracelets, necklaces or clips. Now a brain wave sensor can be used to continuously monitor one’s phases of sleep and wakefulness.Continue reading…