Healthy Investing

Innovation drives our economic prosperity. That’s been beyond dispute since the Industrial Revolution. But as the United States government wrestles to get its books into something resembling balance, it is threatening to stifle innovation.

The drive to cut spending from the federal budget has profound implications beyond the government’s balance sheet, particularly with regard to the foundational systems that catalyze America’s leadership in healthcare innovation. Our economy is inextricably linked to sustaining our innovation system. This system starts with basic research that can lead to transformative technologies and products, and includes public policy and federal agencies that have profound roles in the innovation process for devices and drugs on their way to stimulating new companies and being used in patients. Our economy and society are designed to rely on the federal government to support these systems so that advances in the private sector are possible. There is no other viable model.

We are on the threshold of a Golden Age of health care technology that promises not only better health and lower costs, but many jobs and economic opportunities as well. Health care technology is advancing on numerous fronts: at the molecular level where DNA is being decoded; at the cellular level where innovative diagnostic technologies are being applied; at the tissue level where researchers are developing new ways to deliver life-saving medication while obviating side effects; at the system level where algorithms are being developed to help physicians interpret voluminous medical data.

Cuts to research funding threaten to not only narrow the pipeline of new ideas but to stifle the risk-taking among America’s most creative individuals so necessary to addressing some of society’s most pressing medical challenges, from cancer to Alzheimer’s, to emerging infectious disease, and more. Likewise, the pace and form of innovative ideas appears to be overwhelming the Food and Drug Administration’s capacity to efficiently oversee their introduction to the marketplace. The result is that smaller (and sometimes larger) companies cannot survive the time and cost associated with the process, meaning some innovations may never come into use. Patients suffer and economic opportunity for America is missed. A short-sighted or sledge hammer approach to the federal budget means dollars that could be spent on research and development today will not be returned many fold later as those innovations produce companies — even whole industries — that create jobs, wealth and, yes, tax revenue.

Much of the discussion in Washington about health care focuses on its cost, and as past president of the American Institute for Medical and Biomedical Engineering, I’ve been dismayed to hear some people blame medical technology. While health care costs are indeed escalating, the culprit is not the technology itself, but its misuse. MRIs, CT scans and other technologies clearly have improved health care tremendously and will eventually lead to reduced cost over a person’s lifetime. But not everyone who gets one of these tests needs one and our healthcare system is often designed to amplify the use of technology in situations for which it was not intended or clearly justified (end of life, for example). However, many of today’s emerging technologies are relatively cheap and offer the potential to reduce the cost of health care, particularly over the long term.

The return on the government’s investment in technology development has been extraordinary. It has been central to our standing as the world’s leading economy and put us at the forefront of biomedical innovation. But that lead is now threatened. The federal government is the only entity with the infrastructure, resources and proven track record of success to fund the development of new technologies that will improve our health both physically and fiscally. We need to seize this opportunity. If we don’t, someone else will.

This essay originally appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of The Engineer.