Shaky prognosis for precision medicine

By Ni Tao
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Shanghai Daily, April 18, 2016
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Never before have China's oft-maligned public hospitals been seen as potential agents of a revolution in healthcare. All this changed recently though thanks to the emergence of a new concept: precision medicine.

This term first came to wide public attention when US president Barack Obama stressed the need to fund a precision medicine initiative during his 2015 State of the Union address.

Simply put, precision medicine is a medical model that emphasizes the customization of healthcare with decisions, practices and products tailored to individual patients.

To the delight of industry observers, China launched its own national precision medicine scheme last year. Investors smelled blood and acted quickly. Healthcare stocks rallied on speculation that favorable policies would be forthcoming, and media abounded with headlines touting precision medicine as the next big industry niche.

Amid all the fanfare though, few stopped to seriously question this new concept and what it will mean for medical practitioners and patients. In fact, at the current stage, all the talk of precision medicine's bright future seems like so much hot air.

During a recent lecture given to EMBA students at Fudan University's School of Management, Xiang Yaojun, deputy director of Shanghai's Changhai Hospital, an AAA institution under China's three-level rating system for public hospitals, pointed out that precision medicine has a long way to go before it can generate its intended benefits in China.

Unlike e-commerce and other hi-tech industries where instantaneous communication is not essential, face-to-face content is vital to practicing medicine, according to Xiang. In outlining his vision of an ideal medical-treatment environment, Xiang slammed the widely-held belief that machines are more effective than human beings when it comes to diagnosing illness.

One can have a device strapped to one's arm to monitor minute changes in blood pressure, and then have these readings transmitted in real-time to a family doctor. Yet, as Xiang argued, this will never take the place of a face-to-face consultation.

He also noted that this approach contradicts the traditional Chinese medical tenet of wang wen wen qie, meaning that doctors need to treat patients in person, study their faces and feel their pulse.

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