Innovation Must Be Part of Our Healthcare Future

Innovation Must Be Part of Our Healthcare Future

07.15.11 | By

David Brooks has a typically thoughtful column in today's New York Times. Brooks takes a look at the roll of healthcare costs in our budget debate and opines:

"The fiscal crisis is driven largely by health care costs. We have the illusion that in spending so much on health care we are radically improving the quality of our lives. We have the illusion that through advances in medical research we are in the process of eradicating deadly diseases. We have the barely suppressed hope that someday all this spending and innovation will produce something close to immortality. "

There is much to think about in Brooks' words, but there is also much to challenge. Brooks looks with understandable concern, for example, at the projected growth of Alzheimer's disease. The Alzheimer's Association projects that the disease will cost the U.S. $20 trillion dollars over the next 40 years as patient populations grow from 5.1 million today to as many as an estimated 13 million by 2050. The Alzheimer's Association believes that the annual cost for care and to our economy by 2050 will be $1 trillion dollars.

The toll on patients, families, caregivers and our health care system will be enormous. Today there is no treatment. But, the Alzheimer's Association also projects that treatments that could help delay onset by five years could save hundreds of billions of dollars annually by 2050.

Of course, this is the challenge of innovation. It is time consuming, can be enormously risky and costly, and it more often than not is incremental rather than resulting in a breakthrough that solves a problem once and for all.

But what is key is that the process - laborious as it may be - does work and can produce hopeful results.

An example of this is the progress made in the fight against HIV/AIDS. We recently passed the 30th anniversary of the first time the disease now known as HIV/AIDS was described in a medical journal. Not only didn't it have a name at the time, a diagnosis was essentially a death sentence. Today - 30 years on - we are still working hard to find a cure (there are 100 new medicines for the treatment of HIV/AIDS now in late stage testing or before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for final approval). But vast progress has been made.

Today, here in the U.S., many patients diagnosed with HIV/AIDS are living essentially normal, productive lives and treating the disease as a chronic condition. In short, 30 years-on, the view of the disease and its impact is very different. While we must do more to find new, better treatments or even a cure for HIV/AIDS - and we are -- the simple fact is that innovative medicines have helped to give many HIV/AIDS patients their lives back.

The work now being done to find a treatment for Alzheimer's can, and I believe will, lead to a similarly hopeful result. The nearly 100 new medicines now in development to treat Alzheimer's disease are necessary steps in this process.

The future Brooks' envisions is daunting. But there is real hope in continuing medical innovation. The steady if incremental progress that has been made in the battle against a host of diseases underscores that hope.

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