Too much information?

Nanosensors and enhanced data storage could help us keep tabs on our health status in real time. Is that always going to be a good thing?

New sensors will offer us new opportunities for looking after ourselves. This will be handy if you have diabetes, for example, and need clear indications when to top up your insulin. Even better if a biosensor is linked to a drug-delivery package that automatically does it for you. But suppose you could watch the fat levels in your bloodstream after eating steak and chips, and ice cream. Would you still enjoy your meal?

At the moment, many people benefit from health screening tests. Some tests, such as those measuring cholesterol in the blood, can help doctors decide who should change their diet or take cholesterol-lowering drugs; tests for a particular variant of a gene can sometimes help in the same way. And the early detection of many diseases, particularly cancer, would be hugely beneficial.

Other tests, though, offer information without such obvious benefits. They may indicate an increased risk of a disease later on: yet another thing to think (and worry) about. There are fears that an ever-growing obsession with health, combined with a trend for people to take more responsibility for their own health and the large quantity of health information available on the internet, is creating a new group – the ‘worried well’.

Given the already strong pressures on medical systems, what support systems will be in place to help us make sense of this – potentially very complicated – information?

Some people may be keen to gather as much information as possible, but the evidence from genetics tests suggests that not everyone wants to find out. Genetic tests are available for diseases such as Huntington’s disease, but their take-up has been surprisingly low.

As this shows, the issues raised by medical and health information aren’t new. But a new generation of nanosensors and miniaturised instruments is likely to offer more information, more of the time, to more people. Helping them understand what it means, and whether they really want it, will be a big job.

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Nanoscience’ in June 2005 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

Medicine, Health, infection and disease, Biotechnology and engineering
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development