Every year, new medical technologies emerge to increase our capabilities and provide more care to those who need it. With these developments, we can conduct more tests, get more accurate data, and test patients in new ways.
You don’t have to look far to see the results of these new developments, or to imagine the number of people who can live a better life because of them. For example, scientists have recently developed “artificial nerves,” which can replicate sensory functions in lost or damaged body parts; a patient equipped with these artificial nerves could get touch-based sensory feedback with a prosthetic designed to replace a missing limb. Immunotherapy and other cancer treatments are constantly emerging, giving new, safer, and more effective options to patients struggling with the disease. And researchers are constantly working to stay ahead of new diseases, developing vaccines to prevent the acquisition of those diseases.
However, there are high costs to these amazing technological advancements, and we need to be aware of those costs.
First, there are literal costs to developing better technology, and at many stages of development. It costs money to lease lab equipment, pay researchers, and execute the multiple trials necessary to discover a new breakthrough; and in many cases, there are multiple failed breakthroughs before discovering something worthwhile, multiplying the costs even further. From there, the breakthrough must be considered, researched, and developed further, and after that, it must undergo strict testing—which can often be prohibitively expensive, and take years of time to develop.
Production can also be expensive, driving up the cost of the final products. The more advanced the product is, the more expensive it’s going to be, understandably. Consider the average cost of an MRI machine; while used, basic units can be acquired for as little as $150,000, most MRI systems cost in excess of $1.2 million new. The most advanced units on the market cost closer to $3 million, and that doesn’t even factor in the costs of regular maintenance.
Advanced products and technologies in other areas have similarly high costs associated with them. In many cases, the patients who utilize advanced prosthetics or similar products have their costs subsidized by the research teams developing them or other organizations.
These high expenses have a number of downstream effects, most notably on patients:
- Higher direct costs. While the treatment may be more advanced and better capable of providing value, it’s also more expensive for the end consumer. An MRI scan, for example, can cost a patient between $400 and $3,500. Without insurance, those costs can be prohibitive, making patients reluctant to get the treatment they need—and ultimately resulting in poorer health outcomes.
- Upselling and an excess of caution. Doctors often want to provide the best possible treatment to their patients, which is a noble pursuit. But these good intentions have an unfortunate side effect; they often lead medical professionals to recommend high-end treatments to patients who may not need them. Ultimately, this inflates the cost of medical treatment with only a marginal increase in treatment quality.
- Higher indirect costs. There’s a complex ecosystem in the healthcare industry that suffers from high equipment-related expenses. Hospitals are inclined to charge more for services for privately insured individuals, driving the average cost of care higher. In turn, insurance companies are forced to pay more for services, and the average insured’s premiums will increase, making health insurance less affordable.
False Positives and Overdiagnosis
Many new healthcare technologies are designed to detect diseases and injuries, or test for the presence of certain health markers. These are perceived as especially important in fields like cancer diagnosis, where early detection can save lives.
Unfortunately, this has also led to the problem of overdiagnosis. Sophisticated testing mechanisms and monitoring devices are able to identify the start of cancer development, or some other disease, so patients begin to undergo treatment. However, if left alone, this disease may never result in symptoms or death during the patient’s expected lifetime; this is best illustrated by the fact that the number of cancer diagnoses has skyrocketed in the past 25 years, but the number of fatalities has only slightly declined. This is a net positive, since it results in saving lives, but it also results in excessive stress, financial strain, and harsh physical treatments for people who may not truly need them.
Medical technology continues to astound even the most optimistic technophiles, and we’re on a path to make some extraordinary breakthroughs in our lifetimes. But these new technologies and methodologies are far from free. We need to remind ourselves of the costs and consequences of more advanced medical technology, and work to ensure our tech spending and resource allocation is done as responsibly as possible.