Balancing the benefits and harms of advances in medical technology

Last week I had the opportunity to attend the annual summer conference of the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity. This year’s conference was titled Transformations in Care, and it was focused on how medical care is changing and the ethical challenges that go along with those changes. As usual, the conference was excellent with thought-provoking speakers and interesting workshops and paper presentations.

One of the presentations that I found most interesting was the one by Kevin Fitzgerald near the end of the conference on Saturday. He spoke about precision medicine, which is the use of individual patient characteristics derived by genetic analysis and other techniques to customize healthcare for individuals. This represents a potentially dramatic transformation in how medical care is provided which is actively being pursued and is being promoted by our government. Fitzgerald, whose research involves gene expression in cancer, is involved in the development of precision medicine but had some significant cautions regarding the ethical concerns raised by this type of advance in medical technology.

One of those concerns relates to how we define health. Health can be defined very broadly to encompass the entirety of human well-being. The more technology advances, the more we have a tendency to see our well-being as humans to be something that can be achieved by technological means. That may cause us to neglect the part of human well-being that is based in our spiritual health and the development of moral character. As we seek to minimize our limitations and imperfections through technology we can fail to grasp how important the things that we learn through dealing with our limitations and imperfections are to our spiritual growth and the development of moral character.

We need to understand that every advance in medical technology brings with it ethical concerns. The use of genomics to personalize medical care may have significant benefits, but it also raises concerns about how we make decisions regarding whether some genetic traits are superior to others and how we accept each other in our differences. There are also concerns about privacy and the knowledge of our genetic characteristics and whether there are some things which we would prefer not to know. Fitzgerald very appropriately advocated public engagement regarding these concerns and the need for that public engagement to take place while these techniques are being developed rather than moving ahead in developing this technology without adequate reflection on the concerns the technology raises.

Throughout the conference there was acknowledgment of the positive benefits of technological advances in medicine, but Fitzgerald and others help to remind us of the need to proceed with caution and careful reflection to deal with the ethical concerns raised by new technology.

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