Precision Medicine or Personalized Medicine: What’s in a Name?

February 16, 2015



Recently there has been a lot of news about Precision Medicine, from president Obama’s announcement of a national Precision Medicine Initiative during his State of the Union address on January 30th, to the more recent announcement from the United Kingdom’s government innovation agency that it was launching a Precision Medicine Catapult (pun intended)–an initiative designed to accelerate the development of precision medicine and make the UK the ideal place to develop and launch precision medicine technologies.

As readers of our blog, Tweets, LinkedIn and other social media posts will know, we’re passionate about this particular opportunity in medicine–which we’ve historically defined as Personalized Medicine. So have many others, including members of the media, bloggers and life science industry executives. 

You Say Tomato, I Say Tom-ah-toe

So which is it, Precision Medicine or Personalized Medicine? Are they the same, or do they mean different things? I’m a word guy–words are important to me. So things like this bother me.

As with most things, it is often helpful to check in with a few authoritative sources to see what the great and the good are saying. And while I’ve been using the terms interchangably, and so have many others, it turns out they actually mean slightly different things.

According to a report from the National Research Council,

“Precision Medicine refers to the tailoring of medical treatment to the individual characteristics of each patient. It does not literally mean the creation of drugs or medical devices that are unique to a patient, but rather the ability to classify individuals into subpopulations that differ in their susceptibility to a particular disease, in the biology and/or prognosis of those diseases they may develop, or in their response to a specific treatment. Preventive or therapeutic interventions can then be concentrated on those who will benefit, sparing expense and side effects for those who will not. Although the term ‘Personalized Medicine’ is also used to convey this meaning, that term is sometimes misinterpreted as implying that unique treatments can be designed for each individual.”

Another good source of information about the difference between Precision Medicine and Personalized Medicine is the pharmaceutical industry. Pfizer differentiates Precision Medicine as,

“…an approach to discovering and developing medicines and vaccines that deliver superior outcomes for patients, by integrating clinical and molecular information to understand the biological basis of disease. Precision medicine is the biopharmaceutical research and development paradigm that will help enable more patient-centered clinical practice, including treatment decision-making based on genetic information – an emerging standard now often described as “personalized medicine”. 

So according to Pfizer’s definition, Precision Medicine is the broader, overall approach to developing treatments with better outcomes, based on clinical and molecular information (diagnostics), while Personalized Medicine is the patient-centered, treatment decision making clinical practices that result  from this information. It is where doctors are able to utilize the information, and more targeted treatments, to improve treatment outcomes for their patients.

This makes sense to me. From now on I’ll be using Precision Medicine when talking about industry-related topics, and Personalized Medicine when we’re talking about patient-focused topics.

It this all just semantics? To a small degree, yes. But words mean things, and clarity is important. Especially for a writer.