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Saturday, December 4, 2021

Opinion

Medical advancements could worsen healthcare inequality


While medical advancements are beneficial in their promise of healthier lives, they may be an unintentional force driving the healthcare disparity between the wealthy and the poor. | Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/user: Pigsonthewing

Progress and innovation are two words that have a positive connotation in almost all settings. In medicine, specifically, who could frown upon the idea of leading a longer, healthier life with the help of new ideas, technologies and medicines?

While understandable, this desire for innovation and progress fails to account for issues with implementation.

Despite the assumed benefits of improved medical technology, the frenzy surrounding medical innovations, such as pricey new cancer treatments, is short-sighted. It unintentionally widens the gap between those who can afford medical services and those who cannot.

We shouldn’t be wary of medical innovation, but of the idea that these advancements will become a luxury that can only be accessed by those who can afford it.

One example of the capacity of medicine to turn into a luxury is the polio vaccine. Polio vaccine creator Jonas Salk refused to patent the life-saving vaccine to keep its cost down, allowing for it to be widely disseminated.

If Salk had not made this decision, polio would have inevitably caused a catastrophic number of casualties among socioeconomic groups that could not afford access to the vaccine.

Bridging the gap

The idea that innovation and progress cannot benefit everyone when accommodations are not made to ensure universal availability requires more attention. It has garnered the attention of philanthropist Bill Gates, who has recently made his concerns known in regards to gene editing, a technology that could be used to treat and even cure many diseases.

On his online blog Gates Notes, Gates writes, “Gene editing is generating a ton of optimism for treating and curing diseases. But the technology could make inequity worse, especially if it is available only for wealthy people.” 

In an article published by Brookings Institution, a research think tank in Washington D.C., the authors concurred with this philosophy of medical availability, citing that, “Without a dramatic change in health care financing, only the wealthy and well-insured will be able to afford such innovations when they are first introduced.”

The reality of modern-day medical innovation is simple: the newer, the better. In industrial fields such as agriculture, innovation can provide a cheaper means to carry out necessary functions while implementing new technologies. 

This is not the case for the medical field, where innovation leads to steeper prices. In a nation where it is evident that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, this arc is problematic, especially when it comes to inequality in medical availability. 

If we do not work to solve the inequality in healthcare, life expectancy will be based on income brackets, not countries.

The failure to address issues in healthcare demonstrates a fundamental unpreparedness to take on the challenges presented by new technologies.

This means that in order to properly combat worries of a further stratified, wealth-based system, the United States and other countries need to focus on issues that many already recognize as invaluable: increase access to healthcare, improve and expand educational opportunity and bridge the ever-growing wealth gap.

This is the good news. The United States can help better prepare for the future of the medical industry by addressing the concerns of the present — a worthwhile two-for-one.

The problems of today, such as healthcare inequality, will not fade away as time passes. Instead, they will compound with and make new problems.

With the astounding rate at which advancements in medicine are occurring, further widening the gap in healthcare accessibility, it certainly won’t be long until the window of opportunity closes and we are faced with the consequences of how well we are prepared.

Opinion columnist Ryan Nowrouzi is a biomedical sciences junior and can be reached at [email protected]

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