From an interview with the prolific inventor in Popular Mechanics (HT: Megan McCardle):
Popular Mechanics: Yet health-care costs do keep rising. Is there a point at which we simply can't afford the most advanced treatments?
Kamen: Diabetes alone, if you include all of the long-term, insidious consequences of a lifetime of diabetes, is responsible for about 30 percent of the federal reimbursement for healthcare. Taking care of the diabetic every day is a small piece of it. But what if tomorrow we could wipe out diabetes, suddenly everybody takes a pill and it cures the people that have it, and it inoculates the other people so they'll never have it? Forgetting what a great life that would give people and their families, you take care of 30 percent of what now we project as this insurmountable problem of healthcare, which they project is going to kill us.
Well, it would kill us if we look at the 30-year actuarial data based on our 19th century confidence in technology. But I'm sure in 1920 if you asked actuaries to say what percentage of our GDP are we going to spend taking care of people with polio, they'd say: "They get polio, it goes to their lungs, they sit in iron lung machines, they could live a whole lifetime with three people watching over them. We can't support them all."
But what did it cost to deal with everybody with polio? Oh, $2 apiece. We gave them the Salk vaccine. But in the 1920s Salk wasn't around yet.
I'm with Kamen on the importance of market incentives in spurring innovation in health care, but I don't know if the Polio vaccine was the best example for him to use here: Salk refused to patent it1. Nevertheless, even if he had patented it, the cost of the vaccine could still have been far less than the cost of keeping people alive in iron lungs, so Kamen's point still stands. He could have used a better example though to support his point. Back to the interview:
PM: In other words, R&D spending now may save money later?
Kamen: If you project forward these horrific costs of treating everybody and you want to assume we are not going to respond to that by making the therapies better, simpler and cheaper and in some cases completely wiping out the [diseases], well you know what? We might actually get to that situation—if we stop investing in technology, if we stop believing that the future ought to be better than the past.
If we want to sit here and keep assuming we should be fighting, and that we should be striving to spend less of our intellectual power and our money on great achievements to come in healthcare—that we should be fighting to make it a smaller piece of our economy—I want to know what you want to make a bigger piece of our economy. What do you want to see the future look like?
I think this debate shows a fundamental lack of vision, a lack of confidence, a lack of understanding of what's possible.
Coincidentally, Tim Ferriss blogged about Kamen today, and in the comment thread I mentioned that Kamen was featured on an episode of the Sundance Channel series Iconoclasts (he was paired with Isabella Rossellini). Kamen is a fascinating character, which made this a fascinating episode to watch. Here is a brief clip from that episode.
The photo above of Dean Kamen accompanied the Popular Mechanics article.
1If Salk's research weren't funded by the University of Pittsburgh and National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis -- if, say, he had been the founder of a start-up pharma company -- he would have had to patent the vaccine in order to recoup his and his investors' investment in the drug's development.