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Why ‘Precision Medicine’ Isn’t Precise Enough

April 10, 2017, 5:20 PM UTC

Every time I talk with Lloyd Minor, the Dean of Stanford University School of Medicine, I come away with a sharper, fresher, more illuminated perspective on one topic or another. And such was the effect of our conversation on Thursday. This time, Dean Minor made a good case that the goal of “precision medicine”—the meme célèbre in healthcare circles today—is the wrong one.

The right goal is “precision health.”

Now, before you pooh-pooh such a rewrite as mere semantic nitpicking, consider the distinction—which, in truth, is profound. “‘Precision medicine’ is a subset of ‘precision health,’” says Minor, but while the former is a necessary aim, it isn’t anywhere near sufficient. “The goal of precision health is to predict, prevent, and cure— precisely. Precision medicine is the ‘cure’ piece, but even that isn’t possible if we don’t move the intervention curve closer and accurately predict and prevent early enough in the progression of disease.”

Refocusing our sights on precision health won’t be easy—because it involves achieving something more elusive even than a technological leap or a breakthrough in biological understanding: It demands a wholesale re-thinking: We have to convince and train people to be proactive instead of reactive when it comes to their own health. We have to communicate a radical new message to every stakeholder in the current health care regime—providers, insurers, policymakers, and consumers: that preventing disease and maintaining well-being are as essential as repairing what’s broken. Which in policy terms, translates to: essential enough to pay for.

And…um, in real life, that translates to: essential enough to merit appropriate insurance coverage, serious academic investigation, significant research investment, and, yes, a sense of “ownership” by consumers.

Why on earth would we make such a collective investment? Because the return on that investment is a heckuva lot better than the ROI we’re getting now.

Not convinced? Just look at your next hospital bill.


This essay appears in today’s edition of the Fortune Brainstorm Health Daily. Get it delivered straight to your inbox.