The Council has submitted a response to the National Institute for Health Research’s (NIHR) consultation on the Futures of Health. In its response, the Council highlights six areas of research that are likely to impact on the state of health and the provision of healthcare in England both now and in the future.

1. Fertility and parenthood

Researchers are exploring new and innovative ways of enhancing fertility, including the use of in vitro derived gametes and embryos, and artificial parts of wombs. These raise questions about how we view pregnancy and parenthood, the appropriate use of public resources, and the effects such treatments might have on women’s choices.

2. Genetics – avoiding, diagnosing and treating disease

In future we are likely to be able to diagnose and treat a wider range of genetic conditions effectively and safely. These could offer benefits to individuals and families living with or at risk of serious disability or disease. Difficult questions will need to be considered relating to what conditions constitute a sufficient reason for intervention, the acceptability of germline therapies, and the potential for people to experience discrimination on the basis of their genes.

3. Technology and health

We are likely to see significant developments in medical technologies capable of diagnosing, managing and preventing health problems, particularly in the fields of robotics, nanotechnology and machine learning. Central questions in this area concern personal autonomy and coercion, the importance of the human doctor­–patient relationship, and respect for individuals’ privacy. Professional medical practice should be adapted to the modern information age.

4. Ageing and health

Biomedical research will increasingly contribute to challenges posed by an ageing society. Researchers are exploring medical interventions that maintain health and increase quality of life in old age. However, the benefits of such interventions may be felt unevenly within and across societies, and they will need to be considered alongside other ways of improving health and well-being in old age.

5. Mental health

Research on the biological and environmental causes of mental health disorders is aiming to develop new and effective treatments. It will be important to pay attention to the implications of such treatments relating to patient safety, any unintended impacts on privacy, and the promotion of autonomy both in decisions about treatment and in the wider context of patient’s lives. Further, tackling the stigma attached to mental health problems will be as important as treating the disease itself.

6. Global health challenges

The implications of outbreaks of infectious diseases, such as influenza, Ebola and Zika, are likely to continue to be felt across the globe. A distinct ethics and governance framework is required to enable research in global health emergencies to take place in future, recognising that interventions during emergencies can be healthcare, research and public health interventions simultaneously. In the context of growing antimicrobial resistance, conflicts between the individual interests of patients and the interests of the wider public will need to be carefully weighed.

The response drew upon the Council’s recent inquiries and its horizon scanning activities, and was developed in consultation with Council’s Future Work subgroup and with its network of Affiliates.

Read the full submission to the NIHR consultation on Futures of Health