Does the Rising Cost of Health Care Benefit Society?

Increasing medical bills are a fact of life, says the scientist. In fact, "we should be happy that we are such a rich society ... that we can afford to put more and more of our resources into something like health care."
  • Transcript


Question: What is the fundamental problem with US health care?

Dean Kamen: I think there a lot of issues with the US health care system. One of the issues is that people think in many ways that we have a massive health care crisis, and if you really dissect what people think of as a crisis, I think it’s a misguided assertion. All you have to do is look at the quality of health even in your lifetime, as you were a kid, certainly go back 50 years, go back 100 years. When you look at how far we’ve come, how fast we’ve gotten here, what people take for granted in terms of health care today, it’s pretty hard to be disappointed by the achievements of the medical community.

I think, part of the reason that we all say that we have a health care crisis is because there was a time that the cost of health care really in fact wasn’t very much, but people forget neither was the quality, neither was the capability.

As the quality got better, still with very little capability a doctor could be very concerned and give you a very high quality statement like, “It looks to us like you have this disease or that disease or cancer and you’re going to die because there’s not much this high quality doctor can do about that.”

We now live in a world where virtually everybody expects there’s going to be some reasonable therapy for virtually any situation. Well, this explosion of capability, this explosion of alternatives, of course has a cost to it. We certainly all love the idea that we will get more and more of the upside and the value and the quality but we’d like to see the cost continue to go down and down as we come to expect it would in computer technology or communications technology. But for lots of reasons, they are all very different.

So again, one of the assertions that I think needs to be questioned about the whole discussion is that we have a health care crisis. Really, I think we have now a society which is spending more and more of its money on health care as a percent of GDP as a percent of a lot of things. I think that’s a measure of success. Where else would you like to spend money? Now that we created a society where we got a couple of percent of the whole country, 2% to do all the farming and make all the food. Now that we have a society that’s rich enough that we all have access to electricity and clean water and basic needs. What’s wrong with a society that can afford to spend more and more of its resources, giving people a better quality of life, curing diseases, advancing science, advancing medical technology?

But if our measure of whether we are in a health care crisis or not is the fact that it cost more, I think we’ll never get out of this problem because it’s not a problem.

I think we have to finally deal with the fact that health care is offering us greater and greater value and it will cost more and more money. That is a good thing, that opportunity is a good situation.

The fact that it cost money to get things we want is a reality. We are no longer in a world where you can afford to simply say well, everybody can get all the health care that’s available because it’s unrealistic.

And as we move forward, no matter what political side of any issue you are on, no matter what economic side of this problem you want to work at, I think we need, and I hope it’s true, to understand that the value created by the health care, achievements that are hopefully in the near term and going on for a long time would be greater and greater happening at an accelerating rate, we’re understanding genomics, proteomics. I think, we will see more and more unbelievable technology developed.

We should become at ease with the fact that it will continue to be of larger piece of our economy and I think that’s a good thing. And once we recognize something as valuable as health care isn’t free, and it won’t be free, once we recognize that, the jobs created around it when we pay the health care also stimulates the economy, creates clean technologies, technologies that in fact we are the leader in the world, that could create export opportunities.

What’s wrong with creating whole new industries in which you can create exciting jobs for scientists, engineers? What’s wrong with economy that is based more and more on our ability to focus on improving the quality of life and the health care, the length of life and the quality of health of all people everywhere?

If we want to focus on doing that, we should be happy that we are such a rich society, rich financially, rich intellectually, rich culturally that we can afford to put more and more of our resources into something like health care. If we continue to have the simple shallow debate about, we spend more money today than we did the past year on health care, well you know what, 50 years ago you didn’t spend any money on Google, on the Internet, you had no cell phone bill. We don’t sit here and say, we have a crisis in digital communication, we have a crisis in computing, we have a crisis in video games because we spend more today than we did 10 years ago.

Recorded on June 9, 2009