Those of us involved in the life sciences industry today are working at a time of revolutionary change — the kind that comes along perhaps once in a generation. What’s truly amazing however, is the fact that we fortunate few in healthcare communications are practicing our craft in the midst of two such changes that are occurring almost simultaneously; changes that are transforming both the world of medicine, and how we communicate, forever.
We are now living in the age of personalized medicine. The ability to diagnose and treat human diseases based on molecular profiling is here, and our understanding of the science and how to translate genetic information into clinical practice is increasing exponentially. Ten years ago, the cost of sequencing a human genome was approximately $100 million. Today that cost is closer to $1,000, making this process accessible to most labs and hospitals. Efforts are underway to bring this cost closer to $100.
Biotechnology, pharmaceutical, diagnostics and health informatics companies are now commercializing products and technologies that enable healthcare providers to fulfill the promise of personalized medicine: the right treatment, for the right patient, at the right time. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is on board with personalized medicine, having now approved a number of drugs and technologies that use individual molecular profiles and other information to diagnose, treat and manage patients.
The commitment to advancing personalized medicine is growing increasingly stronger because governments, healthcare providers, insurance companies, life sciences companies and healthcare technology providers are seeing the enormous potential of personalized medicine to significantly improve health outcomes, reduce healthcare costs and increase efficiency. Those interested in really reforming healthcare should consider the fact that before personalized medicine, an estimated 30-50% of prescription drugs didn’t work for the patients who were taking them. Now think about the waste, in billions of dollars per year, involved in that number. Imagine if new advances in personalized medicine are able to reduce that number over time to less than ten percent.
Critics of personalized medicine, like critics of the internal combustion engine, biotechnology, space travel, computers and other such “newfangled” technologies, argue that the cost model doesn’t currently support widespread adoption, the science isn’t entirely understood and the status quo, which in this case is a healthcare system that will bankrupt our country if costs aren’t somehow brought under control, isn’t really all that bad.
There are challenges that must be met for personalized medicine to continue evolving and for it to become widely accepted as best practice. But keep in mind that we are in the early stages of this transformation.
The Human Genome Project was completed in April, 2003. A 2006 report from the Personalized Medicine Coalition (PMC) profiled 13 prominent examples of personalized medicine drugs, treatments and diagnostics products available. The most recent version of this report, revised in 2011, includes 72 prominent examples of personalized medicine drugs, treatments and diagnostics products now available. Clearly industry and the research community are meeting and overcoming the challenges inherent in commercializing personalized medicine treatments.
For those of us who are practitioners, students and advocates of strategic communications and its potential to promote positive change, the evolution of communications technologies, and the influence these technologies have had on how we serve our clients, has been just as transformational. What is really interesting is the fact that this evolution in communications has occurred at the same time as the evolution of personalized medicine.
In 2003, the year that the Human Genome Project announced that mapping the human genome was complete, MySpace was launched. In terms of social media, MySpace was really the first “shot heard ‘round the world.” Between 2005 and early 2008, MySpace was the most visited social media site in the world, surpassing Google in 2006 as the single most visited website in the United States. Simultaneously with the pace of changes taking place in diagnostics and personalized medicine, social media 1.0 was replaced by social media 2.0, when MySpace was overtaken by Facebook. Twitter, launched in 2006, currently has over 500 million active users generating over 340 million tweets daily.
As personalized medicine becomes increasingly more sophisticated, so does our ability to individualize and tailor treatments based on very specific patient information. And as social media evolves, so does our ability to identify and reach our audiences based on specific interests or characteristics, and tailor our messages specifically to those audiences.
Just a few years ago, pharmaceutical, biotechnology and medical technology companies were geared toward one-way communication. Legal, medical and regulatory teams reviewed all content before it was delivered to its intended audience. Unfiltered two-way dialogue was reserved for private meetings, corporate events, teleconferences and medical meetings.
Today’s life sciences companies have adapted to the evolving environment and are engaging in social media, and personalized communications, like never before. In addition to participating in existing channels including Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and others, some forward thinking life sciences companies have gone a step further and created their own social networks around specific diseases or unmet medical needs. In 2012, patients, physicians, influential bloggers and patient advocacy groups are engaging directly with healthcare companies via social media in ways that many thought would never be possible a few years ago.
The keynote speaker at a recent conference on personalized medicine stated that ten years from now, we’ll be looking back on today as a tipping point; a time of amazing progress in our ability to understand individual genetic variations underlying specific diseases and treating patients based on this information. I believe that in ten years, healthcare communications professionals will also look back on today as a time of transformational changes and growth in our ability to personalize our communication and tailor messages to specific target audiences using social and digital media platforms.
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David Avitabile is President of JFK Communications, Inc.