“Seeking out risks in order to improve prevention”

“We can measure thousands of molecules in a person’s body fluids and tissue. We can map a person’s lifestyle or gain information about their social networks.” These were the opening remarks of epidemiologist and public-health specialist Nicole Probst-Hensch from the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute (Swiss TPH) at the start of the Swiss Public Health Conference 2017 in Basel.

On 22 and 23 November 2017, around 300 specialists from the fields of science, politics, NGOs and the private sector convened at the Congress Center Basel to discuss the topic of “Personalised Health from a Public-Health Perspective”. The conference was organised by Public Health Schweiz, the Swiss School of Public Health and Swiss TPH.

Opportunities and risks presented by personalised health

The amount of data and number of sources continue to grow, as do the opportunities to connect this information in order to better measure and understand the current state of our health. “The field of personalised health will use this personal data in order to generate added value for the entire population,” said Probst-Hensch, referring to the Swiss Academy of Medical Sciences’ definition of the term “personalised health”.

Presentations, talks and panel discussions covered the opportunities as well as the risks posed by personalised health in terms of the application-oriented field of public health. While on the one hand, increasingly comprehensive and differentiated health data form the basis for successful medical care which is tailored to the needs of the individual, on the other, we must also keep in mind the consequences of personalised therapy, such as rising health care costs, the question of data protection, and questions of social equality.

“The costs associated with personalised therapies are not economically viable for low-wage countries and I assume that these costs will challenge our health care system in the future as well,” said Probst-Hensch in her fascinating talk in which she addressed concrete illnesses and their complex causes.

A burden on our health care systems

“Chronic illnesses such as diabetes or cardiovascular diseases are on the rise around the globe,” she stressed, as did many other speakers at the conference. This trend is overwhelming the health care systems in developing countries. We need to rely more on primary prevention, which, in the majority of cases, is less expensive than treatment. Furthermore, we cannot forget: “Living with a chronic illness means living with a handicap, and even if that illness is being treated, it’s not the same as being healthy,” said Probst-Hensch.

“We have to seek out risks in order to improve prevention,” she emphasised. For public-health specialists, personalised health’s greatest potential lies in the fact that it allows us to use new methods to determine the risks for individual illnesses: “Research in the age of precision medicine will open up a completely new mechanistic, causal understanding of illnesses and wellness.”

The issue of personalised health is not solely focused on individual patients, but rather involves the entire population. Having said that, for Probst-Hensch as a researcher, prevention is top priority: “From a public-health perspective, keeping the general population as healthy as possible is a central aim of personalised health.”

About Swiss TPH

The Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute (Swiss TPH) is a world-leading institute in global health with a particular focus on low- and middle-income countries. Associated with the University of Basel, Swiss TPH combines research, services, and education and training at the local, national and international level. Over 800 people from more than 70 nations work at Swiss TPH focusing on infectious and non-communicable diseases, environment, society and health as well as health systems and interventions.

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