How the US Healthcare System Hinders a Lot of Innovation in Healthcare

We’ve had some posts lately (as have Kevin Drum, Ezra Klein, Matthew Yglesias and others) on healthcare. One point that keeps coming up from the right is that a single payer system will stifle innovation. I would like to offer a counterpoint – I believe that the current system also stifles innovation.

Let’s take an example. For generations, people have believed that saw palmetto could be helpful for keeping prostate problems at bay. That’s recently been put to the test. A recent study by Kaiser found that saw palmetto is
no better than a placebo in treating enlarged prostates. A Danish study found that saw palmetto might havedeleterious health effects. The New England Journal of Medicine published a study in 2002 noting that two and a half million men in this country were taking saw palmetto.

So the efficacy of the stuff, and whether or not it could cause problems, is a key issue. And yet it took this long for there to be a serious study with a reasonable scale on whether its effective, and only the Danes have looked at whether it might be harmful. This should be something the US is all over – saw palmetto grows in Florida, after all. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t grow in Denmark.

So what’s going on? What’s going on is that saw palmetto can’t be patented. So nobody except a not-for-profit has any incentive to do any research on it. And nobody has any incentive to lobby the NIH to do research on it, so it goes to the back of the pile, behind stuff that industry does want studied. As to people who might benefit from it: screw them. As to people who might get hurt: screw them.

Now, its not just saw palmetto and prostate problems. Maybe aspirin is good for something that nobody hasn’t thought of. Or penicillin. Or chili peppers, or lemons, or some herbal remedy. Who knows? But as long as big pharma makes a profit off of drugs, and as long as big pharma’s lobbying is what determines the direction of NIH research, if you want to know whether something is useful or harmful or whatnot, you’re either out of luck, or you have done to track down research done far, far away that doesn’t get publicized at all over here.