Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A Health Care Jeremiad (part 3)

How sick is our health care system? Here's a clue. We name bad things like diseases after the good people who treat and study them. Parkinson's is just one example. It's named after Dr. James Parkinson, who described it centuries ago.

Good things, like treatments and cures, we name after... what? I'll put it like this: Ever been cured by a shot of Alexander Fleming? Nope. He made the discovery that led to turning mold into a miracle, the first anti-biotic. But the miracle, penicillin, got named after the mold.

This would be great if our plan is to give mold incentive to make medical breakthroughs. And given the other health care absurdities we face in America, it wouldn't be too far-fetched to believe it is our strategy.

But c'mon people! Surely there is a better way to align rewards with the behavior we all agree we want. It makes no sense to name bad things for people who are doing great work, and to give valuable recognition to things like mold, who frankly, don't give a flying fungus about what we think.

Let's divert our present approach to naming diseases and treatments to a path more likely to mean better health for all of us. Here's how to do it, and apply a little correction to Wall Street at the same time. It's a little complicated, but what isn't these days? Bear with me.

We're currently bailing out various toxic businesses. We seem to have no way to avoid rewarding these greedy incompetent failures. But there is "opportunity cost" for all of us. Once you commit resources to one cause, saving our economy, you cannot use it for another worthy cause, like saving our health. So let's get creative. We all know there is value in a name. That's why businesses buy the rights to name stadiums after themselves. They even have a term for the value they reap from it: Good will. Let's apply this time-tested and well understood principle to medicine. No, I'm not suggesting that we auction of the names of big-brand diseases to these internal parasites of our economy. Obviously they're not going to buy them.

But here's the deal. If they want to take our bail-out money we get to rename them after diseases. We'll give them a shot at changing back to their old name down the road at an auction. All proceeds will go to defray health care costs and expand medical research. Thus A.I.G might become Irritable Bowel Syndrome (I.B.S.) until they pony up for something they find more becoming.

Matching a company to a disease will pose some challenges. The number of banks out there with predatory credit card practices will make it tough to decide who gets to be Swine Flu. But don't worry. There are plenty of diseases to go around.

One of the beauties of this plan is the numerous beneficial side effects. Think how much more fun following business news will be when the headlines say things like "Analysts scratching their heads over Psorisis sell-off", and "Earnings report beats down Chronic Anxiety", or my favorite:"Parkinson's slow to react to market changes"

Furthermore these names would serve as a reminder of company history. Memory of their misdeeds will fade over time, but we'll always be suspicious of a company branded say, "Kleptomania Inc."

And let's not forget that this is the kind of reform that will do more than contribute to advances in health in the future. It will make us feel better today. And in the health care field, isn't feeling better the very definition of successful treatment?

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