Nano-medicine, socialized medicine and innovation.

Robert Mittman’s technology series in iHealthbeat covers Nano-technology in health care.  Meanwhile, Tim Oren responded to my saying that I find it strange that "sensible business people vigorously defend their right to be gouged by the current health care system and call anything else socialized medicine"  by writing:

"You might find me more sympathetic than you suspect on the problems, if not on the solutions. We’ve got an incentive system for medical R&D that encourages the development of diagnostics over therapeutics, and palliatives for chronic diseases of the well-off over actual cures for anything. We balance the majority of the global costs of that R&D on the backs of American employers and employees. We’re headed pell-mell to a future in which genomic/proteomic diagnostics will be able to tell us risk factors and disease onsets down to the individual level, destroying the traditional notion of insurance as a pool of unknown risks, long before there are genetic or other therapies to do anything about the problems. We’ve got a growing medical infrastructure capable of extending lives at enormous expense and often with dubious benefit to the patients; and growing expectations that all will have access to those capabilities, even as the less skilled and educated are unable to contribute enough to the society to fund that ‘social minimum.’

I’m just firmly convinced that single-anything is the wrong way out. Putting a government bureaucracy in sole control of either side is a problem – a way to stifle the innovation that might get us out of this mess eventually. Some of the hybrid public/private proposals kicked around over the last decade are at least worth the discussion – maybe some social minimum level publicly funded, privately administered, with a layer of private insurance and medical capabilities on top of it, that everyone would understand is ‘on your own dime’. Yup, a two tier system, but we’re there de facto anyway"

Now I agree with virtually everything in Tim’s analysis of the system’s problems but thus far "innovation" in medical care have just given us more costs down the road–as everyone gets sick and dies eventually.  (Notwithstanding the fact that many of these innovations obviously improve quality of life and save individual lives, even if many of them don’t stand up to rational cost-benefit analysis). Which is why I believe that we should put all the costs under one central line item and have a real debate about what we should spend and how. (I also know that we won’t have that debate, despite the urging of Humphrey Taylor at Harris, because it necessitates use of the term rationing!).

But what if there is a huge change going on?  What if medical care became a real productivity enhancer and added to rather than subtracted from social capital–the way education does now?   A pipe dream?  Well probably, but if you read the nanotechnology article, this paragraph jumps out:

"Robert Freitas, the author of Nanomedicine, has designed (but not yet built) red and white blood cells and platelets–nanorobotic devices called Respirocytes–that will work 100-1,000 times better than natural cells. So for instance, you could sprint at full speed for 15 minutes. While this might make us all run like Carl Lewis, it would also enable extremely efficient removal of bacteria from the bloodstream. Imagine having one injection cure your flu within an hour. Freitas thinks that respirocytes are about 20 years away. Not much beyond that, perhaps another 20 years, is chromosome replacement therapy. Imagine taking several strands of DNA pairs from your body, matching the good ones, eliminating defects, and then manufacturing 4 trillion copies of that genome (you have about 4 trillion cells in your body). Put each into a nanorobot that would travel to each one of your cells and change the chromosome. With some other twists, the nanorobot would permanently rejuvenate you; no more aging."

That may just be science fiction, but if medicine really could cure disease and aging, then it would add tremendously to our social capital–because we wouldn’t have the long expensive periods of sickness that are associated with disease and old age.  (How we’d die under this scenario is another question).  Worth a thought, even if it’s far, far off.

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2 replies »

  1. No matter what people say, I still believe that nanomedicine has a great potential. I just hope that everything turns out to be as planned…

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