Vital Signs Blog

Blog: Getting personalized medicine—what's in a name?

The terms personalized medicine and genomic medicine pop up regularly in hospital marketing efforts. But there is no consensus on what to call this new brand of medicine that's based on the medical effects of the human genome, the constellation of 25,000 genes that make up each person. And the public is still in the dark.

The various terms—genomic medicine, personalized medicine, personalized health, individualized medicine, precision medicine, molecular medicine—each have their fans.

But “at some point it would be nice to have people understand what we're talking about,” said Dr. Mark Boguski, a molecular pathologist at Harvard Medical School who is credited with introducing the term precision medicine into the medical literature in 2009. "As long as it remains vague and fluid, no one takes it that seriously.”

Research shows that the general public doesn't have a clue so far about this new type of medicine. In a survey last year of 1,024 consumers, the Washington, D.C.-based Personalized Medicine Coalition found that 6 in 10 respondents had not heard the term personalized medicine. Among those who had heard the term, only 2 in 10 felt well-informed about it.

Boguski said physicians generally dislike the term personalized medicine. "Physicians take offense because they think 'personalized medicine' implies that they weren't already delivering personalized care for every patient. That baggage should be left behind.”

He prefers the term precision medicine. “There is a real definition behind it,” he said. “A precision diagnosis tells you which genes have mutated or gone awry in a tumor, and this information allows you to match up a targeted therapy. That's not only precision medicine but also better resource utilization."

President Barack Obama picked the term precision medicine for his new $215 million initiative announced in his State of the Union address in January. The program aims to discover tailored therapies by expanding genetically based clinical cancer trials and creating a national research cohort of 1 million or more volunteers whose genomes would be decoded and studied.

Peter Yesawich, chief growth officer for Cancer Treatment Centers of America, said Obama gave precision medicine a bump. He said his company tracks the use of such terms online. “After Obama made his speech, there has been a growing crescendo of search around this term,” he said. “The punchline is there has been a spike in consumer interest in precision medicine.”

Boguski views Obama's program as “a blessing of the term.” In April, California Gov. Jerry Brown picked up on it, earmarking $3 million in startup funding for a two-year statewide California Initiative to Advance Precision Medicine.

But Clarke Caywood, a professor in the integrated marketing communications department at Northwestern University, said it's a bunch of marketing mumbo-jumbo. “The use of so many terms is a sign that this is an emerging field,” he said. “The only term that probably makes sense medically is genomic medicine. But that won't sell.”


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