Mixed Emotions on Cancer Death Numbers

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Ok, so I accept from the outset that I may be engaging in a morbid train of thought. But I can't help wondering if there is something more to be said regarding the decline in cancer deaths in 2003. Specifically: is it really a good thing?

As recognized in the article, and detailed in this data from the American Cancer Society, and as would seem to be common sense, older people are more prone to get cancer. Which means that more old people than young are treated for cancer. Which, of course, means that the improvements in treatment mentioned in the article are more heavliy distributed among care for the elderly.

We've certainly not cured cancer. The improvements are in treatment, making variants of the disease more of a chronic condition than the outright killer it once was. The issue, however, is that this increased longevity in the face of a formerly fatal disease means a greater expenditure for end-of-life care -- an expenditure that thrives in the oddly-constructed health insurance system we currently have. From Andrew Samwick:

The third mistake is to force young workers to subsidize older workers in group health-insurance markets. Insurance is supposed to transfer resources from those who have unpredictably low expenses to those who have unpredictably high expenses. But the differences in average expenses by age are predictable. Under the current system, young workers with lower average incomes subsidize older workers with higher average incomes -- the opposite of what we would expect. Lowering premiums for younger workers would draw them into the insured sector and hopefully keep them there.

Put bluntly, medical improvements in treatment often mean more spending at the end, rather than the beginning, of life. Given the distortions such as tax incentives that entrench employer-sponsored coverage, public funds like R&D spending focus on those for whom the return on the investment is lowest (to be crass, who would society get more from: 10,000 healthy kids, or 10,000 ill but "comfortable" retirees?).

While I'm thrilled at medical improvements (hey, I have grandparents too), there's something about this "success" in the war on cancer that strikes me as representative of bigger problems.

1 Comment

Nice post and glad to see you guys are posting more regularly once again.

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This page contains a single entry by published on February 9, 2006 9:44 AM.

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