By: Agila Somasundaram, Ph.D.
The Problem with Precision Medicine
President Obama unveiled the Precision Medicine Initiative last week. Precision medicine, i.e. personalized, genetics-based medical treatments, would deliver “the right treatments at the right time, every time, to the right person.” But is the science ready for it? DNA testing is increasingly used to detect and treat various diseases, including cancer and birth defects, and the cost of genetic analyses has dropped significantly. But many doctors are not qualified enough to correctly interpret the data, make the right connections between DNA and disease, and successfully communicate it to their patients. Incorrect diagnoses based on genetic data are common. Children have been mistakenly diagnosed with serious syndromes. Sometimes mistakes can cause greater harm than just increasing anxiety of patients or their loved ones. In 2012, The Cancer Journal described the case of a woman who underwent major surgery because her genetic-test results were not interpreted correctly. There is a paucity of genetic expertise among physicians, partly because most of the currently practicing physicians went to medical school before the human genome was sequenced, when only a handful of genes had been identified/associated with diseases. “It’s very complicated, especially for generalists, who have a million other things on their minds besides genetics,” says Mary Norton, a clinical geneticist at the University of California, San Francisco. Doctors could seek help from specialists, but there is a dearth of trained medical geneticists, so doctors end up receiving instructions from companies that are pushing their products without adequate proof of their efficacy. A survey published in the journal Genetics in Medicine reported that a majority of the participants do not fully understand genetic test results or devote sufficient time to discuss outcomes with patients. MedSeq, launched by Robert Green, a medical geneticist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, is an example of an initiative that educates physicians about genetic testing. Martin Solomon, a MedSeq participant and a physician at Brigham and Women’s, says genetics is simply a new tool with a learning curve, like the electrocardiogram. But Mary Norton does not think that it is that simple. Given the pace of genetics research, the variability of test methods and results, and the companies’ marketing strategies, she says that though “over time everyone will come to have a better understanding of genetics… It will probably be a bit worse before it gets better.” (Cynthia Graber, The New Yorker)
Psychological Biases Play A Part In Vaccination Decisions
Why do some people choose not to vaccinate their children? The recent outbreak of measles in the US has triggered discussions around this topic. Misinformation is one reason – people’s belief that there is a link between vaccines and autism. But what might be the psychological biases that contribute to parents not willing to ‘intervene’ on their kids? Omission bias might be playing a role here, where parents judge vaccination (an action) as more harmful to their kids than failing to vaccinate (an omission) even if the risks associated with vaccination are lower than that from not vaccinating their children. People also exhibit this omission bias to varying degrees. A study published in the journal Medical Decision Making in 1994 showed that parents who objected to vaccinating their kids were more likely to think that vaccinating was more dangerous than not vaccinating their kids. Participants were asked if they would vaccinate their child under 3, in a hypothetical situation, if 10 out of 10,000 kids not vaccinated will die from the flu, while vaccination could have a fatal side effect on 5 out of 10,000 children. If a straight assessment of risk is done, parents should have opted to vaccinate their kids. But the study showed that parents who did not believe in vaccination had a lower mean ‘tolerable risk’ than parents who did not object to the vaccine. In other words, they would vaccinate their children only if the hypothetical vaccine had a risk of 2.4 deaths per 10,000 (even though the risk from the flu itself is 10 in 10,000), while the parents who were not opposed to vaccinating their kids had a mean tolerable risk of 5.4 deaths per 10,000. To vaccinate their children, both sets of parents needed a higher risk from the disease than from the vaccine itself, but the gap was greater for the non-vaccinators. One reason could be that the non-vaccinators did not wish to ‘intervene with nature.’ Another reason could be causal responsibility for a death resulting from an action (vaccination) versus an omission (failure to vaccinate). And lastly, a related reason could be anticipated regret – parents who feel they would be causally responsible for negative consequences of vaccination also anticipate feeling greater regret about having vaccinated their children if something went wrong. But how do we define ‘act’ and ‘omission’? The author concludes that merely educating people about the benefits of vaccinations maybe insufficient to change peoples’ attitudes. However, in a society where vaccination is the norm, and not vaccinating the exemption, interpreting failure to vaccinate as the deliberate ‘act’ could have some positive effects. (Tania Lombrozo, Psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, NPR)
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