I started a new job this month. As expected, I’m a little overwhelmed with learning my role, trying to remember who everyone is and what they do, and of course, getting up to speed with the very thing that we, as health communicators, often try so hard to combat—jargon.
Although my head is swimming with dozens of new terms and concepts, one piece of jargon stood out to me. It wasn’t because I didn’t know what it meant, but instead, it stood out because I’ve been hearing it over and over again for quite some time. That term is genomics.
Genomics, or more specifically, genomic medicine, is often referred to as personalized medicine. In short, genomic medicine is a form of medical care or treatment that is customized to your genetic makeup.
The “personalized” aspect of genomic medicine is that it is all about you. If you’ve spent any time in the health care system, either as a professional or as a patient, you’ve probably heard the phrase “standard of care.” In medicine, the treatment that is best for the general population is the standard of care—that is, the care that is most likely to be given. For example, the standard of care for prevention of breast cancer is self-exams and mammograms; if a tumor is found, the standard of care treatment is chemotherapy. But genomic medicine is an approach to care that emphasizes how the risks you have for a particular disease or condition are unique to you and more specifically, unique to your genetic makeup. That’s why more and more doctors are providing care that is tailored to the individual patient, which increases the odds of a treatment working for you, even if it isn’t the treatment that works for most people. It takes into consideration how your genes may make you more or less likely to respond to a treatment.
Pretty cool, right? Except most patients don’t know about it.
A survey conducted in 2013 by GfK, a global consumer research firm, found that just over one-quarter (27 percent) of people interviewed had heard of the term personalized medicine. Of that small percentage, an even smaller percentage (4 percent) understood that personalized medicine is care or medication that is tailored to a person based on his or her genomic makeup.
So it appears that even when I’m writing a post that is far more scientific in nature than what you’re used to seeing me write about, it all comes back to that drum I’ve been beating for years: health literacy and plain language. It doesn’t matter how good your marketing plan is for that new treatment or tool if your patients don’t understand the words you are using. It is up to the health communications team to insist that we use words patients will understand to properly educate them about services that we want them to use.