Blog Health Equity

The intersection of precision medicine and public health

Written by Sarah Wishloff, undergraduate student at Amherst College and participant in the Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program

This past week, Dr. William Powderly, the Larry J. Shapiro Director of the Institute for Public Health, led a seminar on the intersection of precision medicine and public health. Precision medicine is a medical model that accounts for variability in genes, environment, and lifestyle in order to tailor disease treatment and prevention to the individual. By targeting treatment based on the underlying mechanisms of disease, it has successfully been utilized to achieve breakthroughs in chemotherapy and anti-retroviral therapy (ART).

However, only 30-40% of health outcomes are driven by genetic susceptibility or disease pathology. According to Dr. Powderly, the rest is accounted for by social determinants of health. Scientific advances are thus limited by public health issues. While genomics and big data are utilized to define disease mechanisms and drive drug development in precision medicine, they must also be used to improve social determinants like food insecurity, mental health, and poor access to care.

Dr. Powderly made a convincing argument for combining public health and precision medicine to narrow health inequalities and make innovative treatments effective at the population level. As an anthropology student with an interest in the social determinants of health, it was inspiring to hear suggestions for how data can be implemented more inventively in order to address the social factors involved in epidemiology. By directing our attention to community engagement and community-engaged research, to improving access to care and increasing health literacy, we can reduce health disparities across America.

Dr. Powderly’s final words stuck with me. As a physician, he explains,  Only by adopting this approach can we ensure all individuals have equal access to quality care.