Now that we are in a presidential election year, much attention has been directed toward the question of how to extend healthcare to more people. But this crucial question too easily obscures another equally important question, which is how to maintain quality of care. At a time when technological advances in medicine and bioscience threaten to be diluted and obscured under piles of mandatory authorizations prior to their use, nevertheless, personalized healthcare remains theoretically within reach. As the technology develops to help us differentiate between various groups of patients and their particular susceptibilities, the main question which remains is whether or not we can get this technology into the heads of the right doctors and patients.

An example of this quandary is found in the exciting new bioassays available to detect viruses. The FDA has just approved Luminex's xTag Respiratory Virus Panel that can detect 12 different kinds of viruses. These viruses are responsible for more that 85% of the viral infections that humans suffer from. These viruses include influenza as well as common cold viruses. Use of this test can help replace older techniques which rely on cell culture, and can take two to three days to provide results.  In contrast, the new test uses the latest in DNA technology, analyzing genetic material in secretions at the back of the throat.

Use of this technique can lead to quicker and more appropriate use of anti-flu drugs such as Tamiflu and Relenza. In addition, knowing that your patient actually has a virus rather than a bacterial infection will decrease a physician's pressure to prescribe antibiotics. Overuse of antibiotics is an unnecessary expense and may breed resistant bacteria, which is a long-term healthcare expense.

Ironically, early detection panels such as xTag may have trouble finding common usage because of their initial expense, despite the fact that this technology actually decreases healthcare costs dramatically in the long run.

Marc Siegel, MD, is an internist and associate professor of medicine at New York University and the author of False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear

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