Have we entered the age of the cure?

What keeps health professionals up at night? Well, the pressure on the NHS has never been greater and the crisis in care has gone to the top of the political agenda. Diabetes, obesity and heart disease are all on the rise. People are living longer despite unhealthy lifestyles. And cancer still hasn’t been cured. There’s plenty to worry about.

But there’s much to be excited about too. Huge advances in both digital healthcare and personalised treatment mean that the 21st century is destined to be an exciting medical age. So are we living in ‘The Age of the Cure’? This was the topic of conversation at a discussion staged by The Spectator in collaboration with Pfizer at the IET in London. Chaired by the newscaster Alastair Stewart, the line-up of high-profile speakers included Professor Tony Young, a practising frontline NHS surgeon; Professor Nazneen Rahman, head of the Division of Genetics and Epidemiology at the Institute of Cancer Research; Lord Lansley, the former Secretary of State for Health; and Dr Sarah Jarvis, a GP and the clinical director of the health website patient.co.uk.

Dr Jarvis said that despite enormous changes in healthcare over the past decade there were still many people whose ‘biological age’ was significantly older than their true age. And no matter how efficient healthcare might become, it must be recognised that not all diseases could be slowed down at the same rate. The technology available today was ‘staggering’, she added, but high-tech solutions were not the answer to everything.

Doctors needed to focus on basic healthcare as well as the more dazzling new developments.

This point was reinforced by Professor Young, who quoted the author William Gibson’s message that ‘the future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed’. As the largest healthcare provider in the world, the NHS was at the forefront of medical trials in both traditional areas and those that used new technology, added the professor. ‘Doctors have been disrupted,’ he declared, before going on to list some of the high-tech options available these days: wearable sensors, smartphone plug-ins, condition-specific apps. But all the technology in the world would not offer a cure if patients were not given the right basic message, he warned.

Professor Rahman took a more philosophical approach — and even went so far as to say she was slightly irritated that ‘The Age of the Cure’ was the title of the talk. The word ‘cure’ was unhelpful because it was too simplistic, she said. People understood that we could not ‘cure’ infection, yet expected a ‘cure’ for cancer. When cures did not appear, people lost hope. The public should be made aware that while lots of diseases have been cured, and more will be, mankind would never find a cure for everything.

What would help, she went on to say, was better connectivity. The NHS needed to get better at sharing its knowledge. So much more progress could be made if more healthcare data were shared. It would let the medical profession embrace the complexity of disease.

There could be no true ‘cures’ until the system embraced communication, connectivity and complexity, she added. Lord Lansley summed up the same point very neatly: big data meant big solutions.

Professor Young said the issue of euthanasia could not be ignored, although it was a controversial topic that always generated much debate. We all had to die, so let’s plan for it, he proposed. Lord Lansley disagreed, declaring that people’s lives should not be determined by lawyers. The focus should be on giving people better health for longer, he added.

So have we entered ‘The Age of the Cure’? The consensus seemed to be that we are not, and never will be, living in an age of the ‘cure-all’, but that medical advances will allow many more diseases to be eradicated.

More important, though, was better communication about new developments. Exciting breakthroughs in medical science and technology should go hand-in-hand with vital public debate about the implications. If healthcare professionals could get this right, then not only would doctors be able to overcome current health problems — they would be able to cope with future ones too.

This panel discussion was organised by The Spectator, and initiated and funded by Pfizer Ltd.