This weekend as I looked up in awe at my brother’s new drone hovering 35 feet above us, I took a moment yet again to reflect on the miraculous advances technology has made in relatively short amounts of time. Although I’m not that old and therefore still subject to my friends’ “when I was growing up…” pre-technology horror stories I am still old enough to have used floppy disks to store homework on.
Indeed it was my original fascination with this technology that caused me to start my undergraduate education with my sights set on software engineering. That changed of course, but technology is still an incredible force within the healthcare field I am in. So much so that it could be considered a doctor-patient-information relationship rather than just the classic doctor-patient relationship.
Today, information is more readily available than ever before. People can order labs themselves, get their genome sequenced through companies such as 23andme and use Google, SNPedia, OMIM and Promethease to try to interpret the information they receive from these sources. All of a sudden everyone becomes his or her own doctor. This becomes both empowering and problematic.
It is nice to have the freedom to order your own labs even if just out of curiosity. Same thing with genome sequencing. Browsing through your SNPs is fun and can be informative. It might reveal some things you didn’t realize were problematic or it might confirm some lingering long-held suspicions. For example, when I looked through my SNPs and realized I was an overmethylator it made sense why I felt so horrible after getting intramuscular methylcobalamin (Vitamin B12) injections. It also allows me to look at my inherent risks for thyroid conditions, etc and to keep an eye on these over time. So definitely a few practical benefits aside from looking at what percent Norwegian or Navajo I am. Learning more about your health and being motivated to reach for your optimal state of well-being is admirable and to be encouraged.
However, there are a few important considerations if you do have a health concern and you are trying to order your own labs and interpret them. First of all, how do you know you are ordering the right labs? What if there are multiple factors at play? And even if you do interpret the results correctly, what will you do about those results? This is why it is very important to keep your physician involved, because they have trained for many years to address these questions.
And then with genetics, do you really want to know your risk alleles for certain health conditions? Now since breast cancer has been an uninvited guest in my family, I wanted to check my alleles to see if I had any that would significantly increase my risk of breast cancer. This is not something to be done lightly. Before I did this I had to consider whether I really wanted to know, how I would respond if I did have risk alleles, and if I wanted my family to know (of course I didn’t want them to, but I also have a mother and sister who could then potentially also have the same risk alleles if I had them).
So before embarking on this modern self-investigation take a moment to think about how having access to so much information might affect you. And if you do want to know, who will help you to minimize that risk or to take advantage of your beneficial alleles? What other factors might be at play that looking at a single SNP won’t tell you? Now this can be very useful, especially when nothing seems to be working or you really want to fine-tune your functioning. Or maybe in some cases there is potential for some rare condition. But combing through your SNPs on your own hoping to find a rare cause of a common problem is like digging into genealogy hoping to find royal blood in your lineage. It’s just not a good use of time unless you genuinely enjoy it and have loads of time.
We have every opportunity to take control of our own health and to learn how best to look after ourselves. This is very exciting and doing this with the guidance of a trusted physician who can provide insights you may not find on your own will only improve the process. In naturopathic medicine, “docere” (doctor as teacher) is a principle that promotes the sharing and understanding of information between doctor and patient. This is one of my favourite principles because if you can help a patient to understand what is happening, why it is happening and how what you are suggesting will provide a solution then the patient will be more motivated to stick with those suggestions. They will then be able to effect change in their lives that will enable them to be healthier and happier. Not only that, but they will be armed with the knowledge to make decisions about their health in the future that will prevent further problems.