One of the critiques of modern medicine is that medical research is not sufficiently focused on developing cures for disease, and instead, puts too much focus on symptom management and treatment. The reasoning behind this critique, most often applied to the pharmaceutical industry, is that disease cures are wilfully hidden because it is more profitable to manage symptoms long term with expensive drugs than to cure them with a single pill or treatment protocol. There might be a small hint of truth in these accusations, but they distract from a less conspiratorial and more consequential reality: the golden age of modern health care, medicine, medical technology, and medical research is probably behind us.
During the last epidemiological transition, the world benefited from tremendous successes of medicine and medical research. Understanding germ theory led to immunization and water treatment, which probably account for the majority of the increase in life expectancy and quality of life in Western Europe and North America in the last century. Surgical techniques have advanced by leaps and bounds over the last 100 years—with improvements in hygiene probably saving thousands millions of lives alone. Treatments for cancer, diabetes and other diseases have increased the length and quality of many lives. The scientific advancement of medical science research also helped eliminate a host of ineffective and harmful ‘cures’ of the pre-science era.
The biggest achievements over this period were gained through the understanding, treatment and prevention of diseases caused by pathogenic micro-organisms–like viruses and bacteria. By the late 20th century, many of the most serious infectious conditions were under either partial or full control. There remain infectious diseases that still have a significant impact on global public health (e.g., AIDS, malaria and schistosomiasis) but even many of these diseases are preventable or treatable based on the knowledge that the science of germ theory has granted us. Indeed, their continued burden on global health is mostly a reflection of the vulnerability of populations living in poverty, failed political and social institutions, unemployment and a lack of education, not a lack of medical understanding.
What explains our past success over infectious diseases? It probably boils down to their causal simplicity. Infectious diseases have at least one necessary cause—a disease causing micro-organism. When we discovered ways to deal with pathogens—through immunization, the modification of our environments and the modification of our behaviour—we could target the one necessary cause of infectious diseases. We reduced our exposure to pathogens in the environment by treating water and sewage. We enhanced our natural defences for fighting off infection through immunization. We changed our contact with pathogens by altering our behaviour. Importantly, we targeted these strategies directly at the most immediate and proximate cause of disease–the pathogen–and it’s because the pathogen is a known necessary cause that we were so successful.
On the other hand, the causes of heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s and many other major modern causes of disease and mortality are multifaceted—part of a complex epidemiological web. For these conditions, causality has been harder to pin down to one or even a handful of necessary risk factors. Many of the main causes of illness and death today are explain by a mixture of genetic, behaviour and environmental factors. Without a single evident necessary cause, it is very difficult to develop simple and effective cures for most of these diseases.
The evidence of this change can be seen in the life expectancy curves of wealthy countries. In Canada, we are still making gains in life expectancy, but the returns are diminishing, and may very well be heading towards a natural limit. Based on the figure below, we can see that people who live to be 90 have about 5 years of life remaining, on average, and it’s been that way for the last 100 years. It seems that much of medical science involves helping more and more people live a meaningful life to this limit, rather than increasing our life spans, as was accomplished by past medical innovations.
The investment in increasing the quality of life as well as distributing long life to more people is admirable, and worthwhile. However, we have a cultural memory of finding ‘cures’ of disease that originates from a time when medical researchers had the relative easy task of finding and killing the bugs that made us sick. Now that the causes of disease are more complex, there are probably not as many more simple cures to be found, but rather, an assortment of partly effective treatments and interventions that hopefully improve lives. This is not a flaw of medical research, but the reality of our fragile existence on this planet. Nevertheless, the apparent disconnect between our cultural memory of medical breakthroughs and the long list of uncured diseases today might be the inspiration for both ‘alternative’ medicine and conspiracies about the pharmaceutical industry hiding cures.
This problem of diminishing returns is more than just a pessimistic prediction of future health innovation, but has important implications on what we should expect from health care. For one, we shouldn’t expect as much from health care practitioners or researchers as we do. What we know now will, very likely, be more or less the foundational knowledge of future health care and medicine. No new research is very likely to cure all cancer, heart disease or the other plagues of modern life in the way we cured infectious diseases of the past.
Second, while there will still be new research achievements in the future, the benefits will continue to get smaller and smaller over time, particularly with respect to how long we live. Increasingly, medical dollars should probably be spent on improving the health of the worst-off, rather than pushing up against the ceiling of life expectancy. We continue to live in a world where large numbers of people suffer and die from treatable diseases and malnutrition. The massive investment in medical research and care in the wealthiest third of countries has a very small impact on health when compared to the potential impact of investing that same money in the health of people living in the poorest third of the world.
Modern medicine is a victim of its own success; past achievements in medical research have addressed the easy-to-cure diseases, and the remaining diseases are harder to prevent and cure. The slowing progress of medical research is not attributable to medical capitalism, but are due to the complexity of non-infectious diseases. We need to accept that the gains of future medical research are likely to be very small, and that our resources may be better spent elsewhere.
There are some areas of medical research that may be fruitful in the coming years. I suspect there is still considerable room to improve the efficacy of cancer treatment, for example. However, if the health of humanity is of importance, more needs to be done to invest in the health of people that is going to have an impact, focusing our health care dollars based on the return on investment, rather than often unrealistic expectation to find cures to all that ails us.