26 July 2015

Targeting surrogate indicators

In the absence of broad, agreed, explicit goals, governments fine it convenient to target surrogate outcomes. Climate change is one example: instead of targeting the adverse effects of climate change, governments target greenhouse gas emissions, which may or may not have something to do with climate change, and they target them in ways that even in their own terms achieve nothing. More generally, instead of targeting anything as meaningful as human well-being, the de facto target of most governments is gross domestic product (or GDP per capita).

It's not just governments. It's big companies too. Instead of targeting anything that's inextricably linked to physical health (Quality Adjust Life Years, for instance), they try to get us to focus on surrogate outcomes. Cholesterol levels are one such surrogate outcome. Statins have been the preferred - by the pharmaceutical companies - vehicle for reducing cholesterol levels but, now that their patents are running out, a new class of drug, PCSK9 inhibitors, is on its way.

Reducing cholesterol levels might bring about a reduction in heart attacks, but it appears to do nothing for overall mortality. Indeed, overall mortality is not really a concern of many medical specialists, nor of big pharma. It's government that should be articulating our broad health goals. But in this, as in climate change and other policy areas, it's instead taking instruction from the wealthy and powerful, at the expense of the people it's supposed to represent.

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