A century ago, Henry Ford transformed the world with the Model T, the first mass-produced automobile. As other retail giants quickly realized the benefits of mass production, more goods became affordable, accessible, and standardized. Individualization took a back seat.
But by the 1990’s the individual was back in focus, under mass customization—a method that combines custom-made flexibility with the low unit costs of mass production. For example, Nike allows customers to choose colors for every element of a standard shoe. Japanese eyeglass retailer Paris Miki uses data, images, and preferences to recommend best-fit glasses. Automakers like Ford – whose founder once said that customers could have the Model T in any color, as long as it’s black – now offer millions of variations in style and functionality to cater to consumer needs. The customer is empowered to have a collaborative dialogue with the provider for a more personalized product.
But what about when the customer is a patient – and the product is a potentially lifesaving treatment?
Mass production has long been the norm in healthcare, too. As in manufacturing, economies of scale in healthcare have supported the development of mass-produced drugs to treat and cure disease.
But today a new approach is revolutionizing the industry. Called personalized or precision medicine, it uses genomics and Big Data to move beyond the one-size-fits-all model into more individualized care. It promises cost savings, better patient outcomes, and progress against diseases like cancer, diabetes, and even aging.
Mass-market medicine is not going away, but according to a new study conducted by Oxford Economics, more than two-thirds of healthcare professionals say that personalized medicine is already having a measurable effect on patient outcomes. Roughly the same number expect it to in the next two years.
But to reach the full potential of personalized medicine, the healthcare industry and its stakeholders must accept a new landscape. Organizations need to adopt advanced technology and talent. The industry must adjust to new governance models. And we all must accept significant cultural shifts around data sharing.
Personalized medicine allows researchers and providers to segment large populations into smaller groups. Patients are then slotted into the appropriate group based on their own characteristics, including genetic information, age, and personal habits. Providers then can make decisions based on analysis of past successes, tailoring treatment for the smaller group – or even the individual.
But although healthcare organizations are investing heavily in tools like analytics, they still need to fully build out IT capabilities and find workers with the right digital skills. Advanced fields like genomics are not fulfilling their potential – though when tapped, the outcomes are impressive, as researchers at institutions like Stanford University have discovered.
Perhaps most significantly, however, personalized medicine requires adjustments to industry culture in key areas like privacy, data sharing, and governance. The patient is empowered in new ways, with an unprecedented level of involvement in all phases of care. Yet we’re still trying to balance patient privacy with data sharing, as institutions also address issues of collaboration. Finding meaningful trends using personalized medicine requires a huge amount of data, more than any single institution can access. Solutions such as CancerLinQ from ASCO attempt to tackle this problem by aggregating data from member institutions, but more must accept the reality that sharing data and research outcomes is the key to finding cures.
And while economic case for personalized medicine strengthening, it comes down to much more than cost savings. Customization of care will impact the lives of patients around the world. As mass customization of medicine is mastered, we’ll see even more individual courses of care. We’ll see treatment tailored to each and every single patient. We’ll see more lives saved. Personalized medicine puts patients first – and empowers them to be at the center of their treatment process.