Interview with Renate Heinisch, pharmacist, former vice-chair of Science and Technology Options Assessment (STOA) panel and now member of the European Economic and Social Committee
New technologies are going to deeply affect healthcare. Will citizens be ready?
Renate Heinisch: We must consider that scientific and technological innovations accompanied all of human history, since ancient times. And we learned that, every time something new appears, the most important issue is knowledge. Innovation cannot be imposed on people, because if you do it you start having the full spectrum of reactions among the public: enthusiasm, fear, rejection. I am not saying that citizens should become experts of such complex matters such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, or personalized medicine, but they must be able to understand the scopes and, most importantly, the implications for their life. In this way, citizens will make their own decisions on the basis of the best information available. We are already learning that whole areas of our lives are being transformed through various digital technologies. Thus, our task should be to face them with an open mind and with as much knowledge as possible.
How can this objective be reached?
Renate Heinisch: I would start from a concept: people should clearly feel that they are responsible for their (and their children’s) life. In ancient times it was easier, of course. Decisions were made on simpler issues and different generations could understand them at the same level. Now, technology is transforming the world at an incredibly faster pace. Nevertheless, I think that people must feel involved. It could be a new computer, a robot, a new medical device or an artificial intelligence system: citizens should take the responsibility of understanding it at least at a general level, first of all what it can or cannot do and how it will affect their life. After all, it is not so different from vaccines: they too represent a form of innovation, and citizens’ decisions must rely on good information. But you can’t disseminate information only from a central, distant, point. Citizens’ involvement must be implemented locally, starting from health professionals, who are in my opinion the first ones to educate.
You said that, in the past, people of different generations could understand innovation at the same level because they happened at a slow pace. But now, just ten years of difference are enough to experience completely different technologies.
Renate Heinisch: “Yes. Nowadays, many generations can exist in parallel. We should bring them all together. Children and young people can be simply excited by innovation, while the elderly can be very sceptic because they think they will not understand it and it will not be useful for them. And finally, middle aged citizens may feel that they must merely accept or refuse it, as it is sometimes happening for vaccines. But new technologies in healthcare will affect their life at the same level. So, this can maybe be the hardest task: to inform and engage every generation in order to subsequently allow them to face together this fast changing world.