Did you know that doctors are learning how to re-grow body parts? It’s true. Not even just bladders and tracheas (as seen on Grey’s Anatomy), but finger tips and nails too. But are these kind of medical advances really what we should be spending our time on? I mean, we barely know how to feed ourselves.
This was the topic of debate this past Saturday at the Harvard Business School’s 8th Annual Healthcare Conference.
The conference kicked off with a keynote address from Robert Epstein, the Chief Medical Officer at Medco, who trumpeted regenerative medicine as one of the four “amazing innovations in science that hold the promise of true healthcare reform,” along with genetics, epigenetics, and stem cell therapies
But Epstein’s assertion that these breakthroughs will help bend the cost curve down was disputed in the very next panel. Larry Fitzgerald, the chief financial officer of the University of Virginia Medical Center, thinks those types of innovations will bring the cost curve up, because they extend life rather than eliminate disease.
“Instead of having neurological problems at age 80, we’re going to have them at age 95 or 100,” he said during the Health IT panel discussion. “We’re still going to have them.”
And so emerged the topic of the day: instead of sinking our resources into ground-breaking innovation, we should be concentrating on preventative medicine and behavioural changes?
According to the U.S. State Department, chronic diseases such as obesity and diabetes account for seven out of every ten deaths in the U.S. and are projected to cause the majority of deaths worldwide by 2020, outstripping infectious diseases such as malaria and HIV/AIDS.
This topic dominated the global health panel, since treating chronic diseases will be a new challenge to the healthcare non-profits, the majority of which currently address infectious diseases.
“We have patients in Sub-Saharan Africa who say they would rather HIV than diabetes, because they can get treatment for HIV,” said Epidemiologist and panelist Todd Reid.
“Chronic disease is a much much larger problem than HIV in Africa,” echoed entrepreneur Michael Goroff. “Most governments are not strong enough to take over this issue and have European-style healthcare,” he continued, pointing out that not even the United States seems able to do it.
While some of the Global Health panelists were confident that as the disease profile in the developing world shifted non-profits and donor funding would follow suit, this discussion on how the U.S. would start funding preventative medicine became heated during the afternoon keynote with Wellpoint CEO Angela Braly.
When faced with the accusation that insurance companies neglect preventative measures because people didn’t remain customers of the same provider long enough for the investment to payoff, Braly calmly asserted that because WellPoint was such a large provider, almost everyone will be a WellPoint customer at one time or another, making the investment worth it. “An unhealthy population is an unaffordable population.”
Chronic disease care and prevention is being tackled through entrepreneurship as well. Biotechnology and Pharmaceuticals panelist Tom Hughes is tackling chronic diseases through his biopharmaceutical company Zafgen, which is completely dedicated to the treatment of obesity. Among the conference attendees was Jordan Goldberg, CEO and co-founder of stickK.com, a website that uses behavioural psychology principles to help people achieve their goals, including weight-loss and fitness goals.
So though re-growing organs is cool, lets not forget that we haven’t yet decided whether healthcare is really something that everyone should have, or figured out how to stop eating ourselves to death.