Sunday, September 20, 2015

Battling for Biomedical Supremacy? How about improving the people's health?

In an editorial on August 30, 2015, the New York Times discusses the “Battle for Biomedical Supremacy”, looking at the practice of what they call “poaching” of biomedical researchers by one state or university from another. Their main focus on the receiving end is Texas, because it has the highest profile of spending really big money to recruit researchers from universities in other states, and its main concern is (unsurprisingly) New York, which has more medical schools than any other state, and especially private medical schools with big endowments and big research programs to be “poached”. They raise the issue, but I am not (after reading it a few times) quite sure what their position is and I am afraid that they may not be either, since usually the position of the Times editorialist is clear. It seems to be saying “Well, New York needs to join this, but not spend too much public money on it.” But the editorial certainly does not condemn the practice.

I am not sure that I am wholly against it, either. Biomedical research is important. Researchers who can get better jobs (higher paying, more money to support their work) should not generally be criticized for accepting them. People have that right. On the other hand, from the point of view of the institutions that are being poached from, there can be not only feelings of sadness, betrayal, and anger, but in many cases financial losses that result from money they spent to recruit these “top researchers”, and now is down the drain, or so it seems. Sometimes these researchers are signed to contracts, just as physicians who bring in lots of money for a hospital are. These contracts for physicians may contain “non-compete” agreements, which (try to) restrict the area in which a physician leaving their employment can practice. They are more enforceable when they are more local, preventing them from going over to direct competitors, but not when someone is moving from NY to Texas. And the competition in biomedical research is much more national than the competition for direct medical care. On the other hand, if you hire mercenaries, you run the risk that someone will offer them more.

So it can increase the income and resources for the individual investigator (and his/her “team”) and can increase the status of the successful university, and might (in some cases) impact directly or indirectly on the economies of the local area, and thus state. Whether it is “worth it” from a direct financial return-on-investment (ROI) point of view probably depends upon the individual situation. It is almost never financially “worth it” directly; universities (medical especially) almost always lose money on their research endeavors even when you don’t factor in multi-million dollar recruitment packages; most “wet-lab” (biomedical) research (as opposed to say, community based or epidemiologic research) costs a lot more than even the sum of the “direct” dollars from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the indirect dollars (often 50% or more of the “direct”) that is supposed to help support the infrastructure. Add in another $5, $10, $20, $40 million more and you have a really hard time coming out anywhere close to break even.

But so what? The money for biomedical research has to come from somewhere; the usual source is NIH, but if states want to sweeten that, why not? After all, there are privately funded research institutes (the Stowers Institute in Kansas City is a local example); why not state, as well as federal. There are some concerns in that the federal (NIH) funds are the result of a competitive peer-review process, while these state funds are often just awarded to researchers based upon cachet. Still, if the state believes it has a chance for direct or indirect economic benefit, maybe it should “go for it”.

The bigger issue is not whether biomedical research should occur or who should support it, but why there should be competition for which university or state gets the big researchers. Does this facilitate biomedical researchers finding out more about how to treat or cure disease? I guess if more money is available, more progress could be made. But the bidding wars between universities and states seem to me to be more about local glory and (if lucky) economic development than real advances in biomedical research. It is similar to states and localities trying to lure employers by tax breaks, which may sometimes cost more than the economic benefit. Or, in the case of the Kansas City metropolitan area which straddles two states, luring companies back and forth across the state line (so that employees don’t even have to move) in what seems not-even-break-even mode (considering the cost of tax breaks). There may sometimes be benefit to science or the public good from relocating researchers and their laboratories but certainly not at the level and frequency it is occurring, and not enough to justify the huge expenditures. Often there is little or no new value being generated, but rather a shifting of resources from one place to another, maybe with a little loss in the process. However, this is how much of our economy works; the stock market and most of the financial industry – moving money around, skimming off profit (HUGE profit – the profiteers here are most of the richest of the billionaires) without creating any real value for the society.

Even more important is the implication that this is benefiting people’s health. If we wanted, as a society, to actually benefit people’s health, there are a lot more direct, effective, cost-effective and rational ways to do so. This, of course, could partly be providing financial access to health care for everyone regardless of their socioeconomic or other status, including those who have been left out of the ACA expansion because they life in states that have not expanded Medicaid, because they are undocumented, or because the level of health insurance that they can afford on the exchanges doesn’t meet all their health needs. A single-payer health system, Medicare for all. It also could mean enhancing geographic access, for those who are in rural areas or underserved urban areas, by using whatever is necessary (like financial incentives) to get doctors and hospitals to service these communities. It could also mean increasing the number and percentages of health care providers entering our most needed specialties, such as primary care, either by direct subsidy or by stopping the skewed and counterproductive reimbursement of subspecialists at much higher levels. (In Denmark, I discovered, general practitioners usually earn more than subspecialists! It is all about policy, not about the market.)

But, even more narrowly, talking about research, there is the question of getting out the therapies that research has already shown work, and are effective, and often cost-effective, to the people who need them. Continuing to do more research and find out more things is great, but actually having a national (or even state) system to ensure that the important discoveries are disseminated and implemented, is a greater priority. There are many common conditions, such as diabetes, for which we have treatments that are simply not available to many people, for many of the reasons above. Some of the unavailability of effective treatments are cost (the rapacious prices and profits charged by drug companies), but there are also treatments that are unavailable because – well, we don’t know why. While we continue to do more research on discovery, we need to do even more on efficacy, and fidelity, and finding out how to get our people to actually have improved health. Competition for researchers without increasing value is as wrong as it is in any arena.


The most effective treatments need to be available to all, the ineffective to none. We don’t need biomedical supremacy of Texas over New York, or California universities over those in Massachusetts, or even in the US over the rest of the world. We don’t need one university to “win” over another. We need better health for all our people.

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