Assistant News Editor
The open forum discussion began with the harrowing reality that ten million people die each year due to lack of access to medicine. An expert panel of university professors and pharmaceutical CEOs went on to address the variety of obstacles present in the global campaign to provide universal and equitable medical treatment.
Organized by the McMaster Health Forum Student Subcommittee with support from the Bachelor of Health Sciences Program, the panel of three speakers, Aidan Hollis, Richard Elliott and Philip Blake, stressed that pharmaceutical inequality was not entirely caused by poverty found in developing nations.
People are not dying simply because they cannot afford the price of life. A complex analysis of the situation on the macrocosmic scale yields a much different observation: inequality does not result from poverty, but rather due to the current structure of medical research and development.
As it stands, a pharmaceutical R&D firm’s most motivating incentive is for innovation and the subsequent patents. Because of this primary incentive, if the demand is large enough, a patent allows the firm to profit for innovation into a novel process as opposed to meeting any dire need.
Profit, then, as described by Hollis, professor in Economics at the University of Calgary, “is due to the connection of innovation and price.”
Only the greatest innovation will result in both a larger price on the market and the most significant profit for the company. Just as it is not by the benevolence of the baker that one receives their bread, it is not by the charity of the pharmaceutical firms that one receives their medicines, no matter how necessary they may be.
The panel agreed that such a complex network of private and public partners working to meet their ends has caused much of the global struggle to achieve universal access to medicine. Elliot, executive director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, stressed that, “such price-based incentives have characterized the staggering inequality in healthcare for a long time.”
The panel offered little in way of solution, although a few overarching suggestions were offered in how to “square the circle,” as Hollis described it. Perhaps the most obvious was an explicit need to change the funding paradigm by radically altering incentives to fund research.
By no means did the panelists suggest it would be an easy task, however. Hollis stated that while the means to best do this is a contentious topic, it must be remembered that “companies are run by people who value healthcare just as much as anyone else,” which is inherently true.
Behind the grey walls and the large laboratories are people who would rather a system that rewards them for what they do, not what price they sell.
Philip Blake, president and CEO of Bayer Incorporated, mirrored the ideal. “We need a way to encourage innovation in a reality described by serendipity, and to find motivation balanced by pragmatism.”
Pragmatic as any solution may be, the question of how valuable one life is compared to the net profit seemed inescapable. While all panelists were adamant in their belief that any single life is invaluable, dividends behind the various pharmaceutical industries may have suggested otherwise.
One thing is for certain, though. The solution to a gross inequality in medical access is not found in a cure. Based on current intellectual property rights and capital market systems, there is no money to be had in a final cure.
Instead, profit is found in pills that placate an illness, that opiate the senses, and that mitigate the affects, as opposed to eradicating them.
That is the reality of the global struggle in universal medicine. On one end, people lack access to medication and die.
On the other, people take it for granted and often abuse their prescriptions. It would seem that the current market system does not allow for a middle ground between the two. As Hollis stated, “while companies want to do what’s valuable by improving health, they also want to make money.”