An ever-evolving economic crisis continues to challenge our U.S. and global leaders. The marathon search for solutions is approaching sprint speed and yet, we are surprised at how hardly anyone has turned to leveraging our greatest strength: human capital as part of the answer.
The 20th Century’s greatest achievement was the increase in life expectancy. This fueled the growth and increased the productivity of our economy and allowed nations worldwide to build wealth. The 21st Century presents us with the opportunity to not just leverage the extension of life but to also improve the quality of life. Instead of taking this opportunity head-on, we shy away from investing in human capital, the one resource we have an abundance of, even as we know that doing so will yield immense returns for generations to come.
Along with the moral imperative to conquer disease and relieve suffering comes the economic reality that illness and its costs are debilitating to our economy. According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the U.S. spent $2.1 trillion on healthcare in 2006, more than $7,000 per person. For all the intellectual and financial capital flowing through our healthcare system, there remains a formidable list of diseases for which there are no cures or even meaningful treatment options. Treating disease is not only the right thing to do to save lives; it is the right thing to do to save our economy.
Consider that the elimination of cancer as a cause of death and suffering is worth more than $50 trillion to the US economy. If we can do this, we would greatly add to the growth of our economy, productivity, and quality of life, making up for the financial assets we may have lost in the last 90 days, and preventing further loss in years to come. Yet our national investment in cancer research is going down and is nowhere near commensurate with the costs we bear or the gains we could expect if we made progress in curing cancer.
If President-elect Barack Obama cares about fixing America’s broken healthcare system, he needs to think about fixing the broken healthcure system.
Research!America released a report last week that showed 73 percent of Americans believe research is a solution to rising healthcare costs, and yet, out of every dollar we spend on health, we invest only 5.5 cents in research. It takes 15 years to develop new medical treatments. But we know that the thousands of people diagnosed with a deadly disease today cannot wait 15 years. We created a research enterprise system at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) whose central organizing principle was the study of human biology. This brought enormous breakthroughs in the fundamental knowledge necessary to understanding, preventing, diagnosing, and treating many diseases. But our ability to translate exciting new discoveries into products that can help patients is severely lagging behind the pace of discovery.
If President Obama cares about improving America's standing around the world, he needs to make good health our most important export. Global health is not just for ex-presidents. Our global diplomatic strategy should include directing resources to finding cures for global diseases.
Reorienting our medical research enterprise to cure diseases will pay-off in dividends far greater than health outcomes alone. It is one of the critical pieces needed to rebuild America’s global standing. Diseases transcend national borders and trump domestic policy agendas.
We need to immediately begin creating a medical research system for the 21st Century, one that will focus on curing diseases. To do so would require the right leaders are in the right positions at the right time.
We need strong, capable individuals at the helm of government agencies with bold, nearly-impossible missions. Presidential appointments need to rest on credentials, not connections. With Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) holding the top post at the Department of Health and Human Services, other officials with equal gravitas and expertise need to be in place protecting the health of all Americans, providing essential human services, and effectively managing an annual budget of over $700 billion dollars (representing almost a quarter of all federal dollars). We need and expect the right leader to steer the vast NIH enterprise down the path of finding cures, accelerating the pace of over 38,000 research projects nationwide, and managing 27 separate health institutes and centers. We need and expect a formidable FDA Commissioner ensuring the safety of foods and cosmetics, and the safety and efficacy of drugs and devices; products which represent almost 25 cents out of every dollar in U.S. consumer spending.
Among the tasks at hand, these leaders will have the opportunity to:
- Transform the existing fragmented, bureaucratic research infrastructure into a collaborative network.
- Ensure that the ultimate goal of all scientific research is to improve health and cure disease.
- Highlight the critical role patients play in the search for cures and incentivize patient participation in research.
- Ensure that the nationwide health information system being built can improve patient care and enable medical research.
- Transform the NIH Intramural Research Program (IRP) to focus on translational research.
- Support efforts to build capacity and improve effectiveness at the FDA.
- Develop a responsive system for reviewing and funding research that will identify the most promising areas of scientific exploration in terms of their potential to contribute to improved human health and well-being.
- Encourage innovative, integrated, and information-based research approaches and new models of research funding.
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