02 August 2015

Irrational health funding

This is irrational, but not surprising:
The [US] National Institutes of Health last month published a startling analysis of how it allocates its funding: in 2010, HIV research received nearly $3.1 billion in funding, while a deadly lung disease that has more than six times the health toll in the United States got only $118 million. Two diseases with a similar health burden, breast cancer and chronic liver disease, received wildly different levels of support: $763 million for the cancer best known for iconic pink ribbon awareness efforts, versus $284 million for a disease commonly caused by alcohol abuse. Autism receives more than five times the funding of eating disorders, but their impacts on health, measured in years of disability and premature death, are quite close. Why the diseases that cause the most harm don’t always get the most research money, Carolyn Johnson, washingpost.com, 17 July
I've inveighed against this sort of bias in government policy for years. In health, as in other policy areas, I am sure that government is well meaning and hard working. But it suffers from its inherently uniform, top-down approach. Government can also be short term in its thinking, reactive rather than proactive, and disdainful of innovation while favouring tried, tested but failed approaches. It has to make its resource allocation decisions on the basis of data that are necessarily incomplete. How can it know in detail the effect that spending on, say, cancer diagnostic machinery will have on the overall health of the nation, as compared with subsidising the cost of nicotine chewing gum?

So, by default, health expenditure is influenced by groups of medical specialists with little incentive or capacity to see improvements in the overall health of a large population as an objective. Funding decisions are also heavily influenced by the public profile of a disease or its victims, rather than on what would best meet the needs of society. It’s also a question of diet, exercise, transport, and culture. Recent research shows, for instance, the beneficial effects on health of green spaces in our cities (see here (pdf) for instance). The way government is structured, with its discrete funding bodies, makes it unlikely that such benefits will influence funding decisions.

We cannot expect a government nor any single organization to identify the huge numbers of variables, with all their time lags and interactions, that influence the nation’s health. We can, though, devise a system that rewards people who explore and implement the most cost-effective health solutions, even when circumstances and knowledge are changing continuously. I have tried to do this with my essay on Health Bonds, which would aim to distribute scarce government funds to where they would do most good, as measured by such indicators as Disability Adjusted Life Years. One small caveat though: I'm assuming that most of us - at least in our most rational moments - favour such a distribution of health resources. But there is a possibility that the current (mis)allocation of resources originates in unvoiced but widely held preferences. Ms Johnson quotes one expert: "...we tend to underfund things where we blame the victim". It's unlikely that the large disparities in health funding outlined above do reflect such deliberate choices. But even if they do, it would be better to be explicit about it.

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