The branch of knowledge governing moral principles that oversees a person’s behaviour or an activity is Bioethics. One of the more interesting fields of study in the current economic scenario is Bioethics. Bioethics is the study of ethical issues emerging from advances in biology or medicine. Technology has successfully altered several professions. Using the advancements in technology, science and medicine have broken many barriers. Life expectancies have increased drastically as a result of these positive advancements. Naturally, these advancements do not come without a price to pay. Bioethics addresses a myriad of human misperceptions that cannot be easily resolved.
In the past couple of decades, it has dealt with issues relating to abortion, euthanasia, surrogacy, organ donation etc. In more recent times, when machines are far more advanced than they were before, bioethics deals with ethical issues arising out of digital health. It includes challenges posed by Artificial Intelligence (AI) and big data, gene editing, bioterrorism, etc. While digital health is one of the more advantageous advancements, it poses a temptation to those who want to misuse it. Digital Health could be the future of medicine. However, it is also imperative to address the issues that could arise out of the same. In the recent times, the threats arising out of the convergence of medicine and technology require immediate attention.
One such important bioethical concern is the privacy of medical and genetic data of individuals. Countries like USA are already experiencing such concerns as pharmaceutical companies would like to develop innovative new medicines using human genetics as a basis for their discovery. Companies like Ancestry and 23andMe sell DNA tests and provide personalized reports about ancestry, health, traits, etc. This allows them to maintain a consumer database of genetic information. Incidentally, there are reports that 23andMe has made $130 million dollars from selling genetic information. The question is whether people are comfortable with this idea.
Another concern is with relation to cyber security. The WannaCry ransomware attack in 2017 that affected over 200,000 computers in 150 countries crippled the National Health Service in UK. Hospitals in UK were shutdown and non-emergency patients had to be turned away when the ransomware plundered its network. The failure of the health IT infrastructure has emphasized some loopholes in the system. These loopholes in the cybersecurity increase privacy concerns. The digitized data available on the networks of the hospital must be secure so that patient confidentiality is not breached. Since all the data will be digitized in the near future, patients’ medical records can be available on the system which is highly susceptible to hacking.
Apart from the security concerns, the availability of the medical information on the internet are likely to raise other complications. Digital health in the future will allow individuals to self-diagnose, take scans and do blood tests in their own comfortable homes. This does not come as a surprise as home kits for checking sugar and blood pressure levels already exist. The availability of information, raw materials and technical know-how in medicine has created a surge of “garage solutions”. Some people try to work out long-term solutions for serious medical conditions outside the traditional methods of research in the field of medicine. The #wearenotwaiting Twitter movement for diabetes patients is a paradigm of the raising concerns of bio-hackers.
Dana Lewis and her husband built an artificial pancreas at home to fight diabetes and spread the blueprint and know-how for it on Twitter for other patients without waiting for an FDA approval. Something that started as a social media movement brings to light the importance of curtailing such activities. Dana used the device for two years before FDA approval and also tried to spread the same. The ethical dilemma here is quite apparent. The future of medicine with the convergence of technology is facing the same dilemma. This extent of medical knowledge in the hands of individuals could belittle professional care which could cause many mishaps.
The importance of bioethics in the current scenario is increasing with every medical discovery aided by technological advancements. The World Health Organization recognizes these complications and strives to provide leadership and guidance in certain vital areas. They include research ethics, human genome editing, human organ and tissue transplantation, bio-banking (collection, storage, dissemination of samples and specimens), big data and AI. By abiding to their guidelines, many bioethical dilemmas can be effectively evaded.
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