by Maria Raimundo* | originally published in Observador
Despite the pandemic having brought unprecedented challenges, healthcare systems that already prioritized data-centric strategies and patients were better prepared to respond to the outbreak. Soon, they managed to adapt patient care and emergency planning according to these changes and according to the identification of patients at greater risk of contracting Covid-19. Embracing advances in population risk stratification and risk monitoring allows us to be better equipped to prevent disease and promote health, elements that are fundamental to public health and the sustainability of national healthcare systems. Genetics allows us to better understand health correlations, disease risk, and patterns of population groups to assess public health in general. Thus, population genetics initiatives are needed to prevent new incidences of public health risk, stratify population risk, and proactively protect the population. All in all, genetics has the potential to revolutionize current healthcare systems!
Health data began to have economic value across the healthcare ecosystem, especially in the field of genetics and in the pharmaceutical industry, while being seen as a strategy with potential. Population genetics has become intriguing, with genetic data being mostly considered to help predict, diagnose and treat the health of individuals in a more personalized and tailored manner. Strategies guided by genetics can decrease the risk of disease incidence, improve the adoption of healthy behaviors, as well as trigger early detection of diseases and more targeted treatment options. The collection of genetic data and more general health data began as isolated initiatives, whether in hospital laboratories, companies, or others. At the moment, several countries are establishing population data collection initiatives for the future implementation of personalized medicine in daily clinical care.
In the last two decades, large-scale projects have been implemented across Europe, as is the case of the European ‘1+ Million Genomes’ initiative. A partnership of 24 European countries, which are aiming to sequence at least one million genomes to provide access to the resulting genetic database by 2022. This collection has the potential to improve disease prevention, allow more personalized treatments, and provide innovative and impactful research. In addition, European countries like Estonia and the United Kingdom are pioneers in the collection and management of large amounts of genetic data, to implement improved public health efforts with a focus on preventive health measures.
Such initiatives require appropriate technical infrastructure, clear legal and ethical implications, as well as education for both citizens and policymakers, to ensure acceptance and successful integration of personalized medicine into national healthcare systems. Population genetics provides an opportunity to develop more personalized and targeted drugs, therapies, and interventions. In addition, it can also open doors for better diagnostics, prevention awareness, and more efficient use of existing resources. From cancer to rare diseases, to neurological diseases, to new outbreaks and prevention, genetics can vastly improve citizens’ health. It has the potential to improve the efficiency, accessibility, sustainability, and resilience of healthcare systems.
Consequently, there is a need for an initiative to collect and aggregate genetic data at a national level in Portugal. Such an initiative would not only encourage innovative research but would also promote innovation in the pharmaceutical industry. Besides, it would be possible to adapt public health strategies according to the identified population risks and to adapt the education of future healthcare professionals. The progress of the Portuguese national healthcare system shows that it is possible to achieve such an initiative at a population level, especially with the efforts being made with the implementation of the Recovery and Resilience Plan for 2021-2026. We must use the current pandemic crisis to embrace healthcare transformation and position Portugal at the forefront of healthcare innovation at the European level. More crises will come and we will want to be better prepared, not only regarding the implementation of digital health solutions and innovative healthcare equipment but mainly in preventing the risk of the entire population.
Lisbon, April 2021
(article originally published in Portuguese at Observador online newspaper – April 2021)
* Maria Raimundo is Senior Account Manager – Healthcare & AgroFoods AT BETA-I
and part of the community Global Shapers Lisbon Hub