Health Care

What does it take to be a leader in precision medicine?

female doctor in lab

female doctor in lab  (gevende)

With strong support from Congress, President Obama has made precision medicine a focal point of the end of his term. Even with a change coming in the White House, precision medicine will remain a national priority because of its many potential benefits. The key to its success will be clinical implementation. As genetic screening tests become increasingly common, precision medicine could change the practice of medicine as we know it.

Implementing precision medicine will require health systems to decide what precision medicine will look like for them. Some systems are taking a three-pronged approach and incorporating basic science discovery, testing in clinical trials, and clinical implementation of precision medicine across separate institutes or departments, while others are combining initiatives within related areas such as biomedical research informatics and genomics. Some progressive organizations are carving out entities for precision medicine with independent budgets, staff, and decision-making abilities. There is no standard approach.

But there is a need in all cases for innovative leadership. Executives overseeing precision medicine typically carry a director designation, such as director of precision medicine or director of personalized medicine. In working with health systems and academic medical centers across the country, we have seen precision medicine leaders with MDs or PhDs or both, with background specialties including computational genomics, biomedical informatics, bioinformatics, pharmacogenomics, and other areas.

Read more: On precision medicine, Obama is playing the long game

Bringing everyone to the table

While degree and background matter, an individual’s vision for the future and his or her ability to develop a strategic plan to get there is also important. A precision medicine executive must bring everyone to the table for the arduous process of implementing advancements in the most efficient way possible. The culture of an organization, how it has structured its current precision medicine initiatives, and how it will develop them are all important factors to take into consideration.

Some forward-thinking academic health systems are looking to their counterparts in industry. Pharmaceutical and diagnostic companies have been using precision medicine for years as a way to find exacting cohorts for clinical trials. A precision medicine leader with industry experience can act as the bridge between academia and industry in effective ways that most pure academics cannot.

A precision medicine leader must be more than a source of grant revenue for an institution. This person must be an executive in the truest sense of the word. He or she must have the ability to engage with the outside market, including venture capital firms, where much innovation is taking place, as well as payer organizations to ensure genomic screening can be covered for patients. Successful clinical implementation won’t matter without a precision medicine leader who is able to ensure that genetic screening is economically viable for patients and providers in the first place.

Read more: Genetic testing fumbles, revealing ‘dark side’ of precision medicine

Finally, any change to physicians’ daily workflows has the potential for resistance. Creating and bringing together robust clinical decision support tools will not make a difference if physicians refuse to use them. A great precision medicine leader, therefore, must be a health care innovator and an evangelist to patients and the clinical community.

Hillary Ross, JD, is a principal with Witt/Kieffer, a recruiting agency that specializes in finding leaders for academic institutions and health and life sciences organizations and companies. Zachary Durst is an associate for Witt/Kieffer. Both are based in the company’s Oak Brook, Ill., office.