Why Doctors Hate Big Pharma

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  • 04/02/2008
Peter Huber notes that new medicines replace what Lewis Thomas termed as half-way technology or palliative care and eliminates jobs and buildings along the way..

"Diagnosis used to be almost all doctor; now it's almost all lab--and the lab technicians rely on higher-caliber dipsticks, assays and reagents developed and mass-produced by the same teams of top-tier doctors, research hospitals and big drug companies.

When drugs get good enough, they displace hours of ineffectual (but remunerative) human monitoring and palliative care. Drugs displace doctors, nurses and hospital beds because they really work and because they often work long before bad chemistry morphs into clots, plaques, lumps and other symptoms that require scalpels and beds. In the first half of the 20th century almost all medically supplied gains in health and life expectancy came from germ-killing vaccines and antibiotics. All the important gains since have come from arrays of drugs that target clogged arteries, strokes, cancer and other diseases rooted in our own human chemistry. Human eyes can't see and human hands can't handle most of the things that make us sick--bacteria, viruses, white blood cells, antibodies, proteins, enzymes, fats and genes."

This is a variation of Lewis Thomas wrote over 30 years ago: "A multiplicity of new variants of antibiotics and chemotherapeutic agents has appeared on the market, but one would not expect that the rational use of this technology, even allowing for the high cost of development and marketing, would have proven to be anything like the previous cost of hospital care in the absence of such a technology..typhoid was a 12 to 16 week illness; meningitis often require several months of care through convalesence; these and other common infectious diseases can now be aborted promptly, within just a few days..."

Thomas concludes: If our society wishes to be rid of the diseases, fatal and non-fatal, that plague us the most, there is really little prospect of doing so by mounting a still larger healthcare system at still greater cost for delivering essentially today's kid of technology on a larger scale....The harvest of new information from the biological revolution of the past quarter century is just now coming in, and we can probably begin to figure out the mechanisms of major diseases which were black mysteries a few years back as accurately and profitably as was done for the infectious diseases earlier in the century."

In the 30 years or so since Thomas wrote that, his prediction has come to pass. We still have more to harvest however. And as Huber points out, to think we can do it without commercializing research reflects a hostility to capitalism and protectionism of the worst sort.

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Center for Medicine in the Public Interest is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization promoting innovative solutions that advance medical progress, reduce health disparities, extend life and make health care more affordable, preventive and patient-centered. CMPI also provides the public, policymakers and the media a reliable source of independent scientific analysis on issues ranging from personalized medicine, food and drug safety, health care reform and comparative effectiveness.

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