I noticed a nice entry on the tangible economic results of progress in medical science from Randall Parker at FuturePundit:
Charlie Rose conducted a group interview of Robert Klein, campaign chair for the Calfornian Proposition 71 embryonic stem cell funding initiative, Brook Byers, partner at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers, and Susan Desmond-Hellman, president of product development for Genentech. The general area of discussion was about biotechnology and medicine. These three interviewees all agreed on one very important point: only innovation can solve the problems caused by high and rising health care costs. It was gratifying to see these figures make an argument that is familar to readers of my blogs. Scientific and technological advances will be the ultimate solutions to the rapidly rising costs of medical care.
In one of his Lives Of A Cell books (this is an old memory, forget which one, probably Lives Of A Cell: Notes Of A Biology Watcher) published some time in the 1970s Thomas noted that before the advent of effective treatments of tuberculosis the many tuberculosis sanitariums were very expensive to operate. But he pointed out that once effective drugs against TB were developed the vast bulk of the sanitariums were quickly shut down as their patients were quickly and cheaply cured of TB. Thomas contended that expensive treatments are expensive because they fail to fix the underlying causes of diseases and that just about any really effective treatment is going to be pretty cheap. I agreed with him then and decades later I've grown only more confident that he correctly saw the fundamental problem (far more important than tort law, regulations, tax law, government entitlements programs, or market failures) that that is the root of high medical costs.
"In my own early professional life when I was an intern on the wards of Boston City Hospital the major threats to human life were tuberculosis, tetanus, syphilis, rheumatic fever, pneumonia, meningitis, polio, septicemia of all sorts. These things worried us then the way cancer, heart disease, and stroke worry us today. The big problems of the 1930s and 1940s have literally vanished."
A few of those diseases have made a come-back of sorts. But all are still problems of much lower orders of magnitude than they were a century ago. But what is most important to note is that when effective treatments were found for them the costs of preventing and treating them became a small fraction of the costs that those diseases previously inflicted on their victims, families of victims, and the rest of society.
All very interesting in the context of some of my previous comments on the projected cost of future healthy life extension medicine:
As medicine improves - and improves faster thanks to the efforts of researchers, educators, businesspeople, advocates and other pro-research folks - we will have access to ever more options for living longer, healthy lives. Those options are unlikely to be free, however, especially in the early years of availability. The cost of any given medical treatment drops as marketplace competition sets in and the technology is improved, but most medical expenses require planning.
There are good reasons for believing that costs will remain much the same for major new medical procedures. Very little of that money actually goes towards technology and materials (no matter what that bill says). Most of it pays for people, time, expertise and organizational overhead. Those items tend to remain more consistant across the years even as the underlying technologies, skills and materials change.
I was discussing getting in at the early part of the curve of cost decline - since most of us won't have any other option (aside from the obvious and rather unpleasant one). Still, the very interesting references in Randall Parker's post point to a future - not too far away - in which no-one worries about heart disease, cancer and stroke. What will medical science focus on in those years? If we're lucky, we'll get much more time and money spent directly on aging and serious anti-aging research.