Communicating about genomics

Scientists started the human genome project more than two decades ago to understand what makes each of us different. Thanks to this project we now know a lot about our genes.

Scientists started the human genome project more than two decades ago to understand what makes each of us different. Thanks to this project we now know a lot about our genes. 

For about $400 you can buy your own genetic profile from companies like Pathway Genomics and 23andMe. Giving humans this kind of knowledge about their health risks presents a tremendous communications opportunity, and challenge.

Our hope is that humans, armed with certain knowledge, might actually improve their fates. This concept, which is very nicely described by Thomas Geotz in The Decision Tree, has been around for quite some time in the field of public health. Yet, in many ways, it is revolutionary.

For just one example of how serious this movement is, Johns Hopkins, the perennial hospital ranked number one in the country, has revamped its entire medical school curriculum to focus on personalized medicine – the idea of tailoring treatment and prevention based on a person's individual genetic profile.

But uncovering the genome and its mysteries cannot stand alone if it's to benefit society. This movement requires a guide. Individuals are fated in some ways to progress toward diseases encoded on their DNA, and the knowledge of what those diseases are in and of itself won't change that fact. However, individuals do in fact have the power to bend this fate and shape it in a manner that might dramatically improve their health and well-being. 

This is where communications will be critical. With the proper information, education, and incentives, patient understanding of their genetic risks could bring health care to an unprecedented point in medical history. Communicating the potential and providing a framework with which to deliver it is as important as the science itself.

Henry Engleka is a principal of Widmeyer Communications and MD of the agency's New York office.

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