Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Treating the sick

This Slate article does a good job of drawing attention to the plight of the very sick in poor countries, but a terrible job of thinking through the issues. The standard way to pose the problem is:
If you have $10,000 to spend on healthcare in a poor country, is it better to
a) operate on one person with a bad heart, giving him an extra 6 years of life
b) invest in childhood preventative care for 100 children, giving each one an extra 5 years of life

The mathematics is pretty compelling: you get 6 years for your $10,000 in one case, and 500 years for that same $10,000 in the other. That is if you believe in this sort of medical mathematics. The Slate article does not (a position I have some sympathy with) and rejects the whole notion that you can value human life at all.

The rest of the article has numerous examples where very expensive treatments have been given to people in very poor countries. This has been done either through charity (doctors donating time, pharma companies donating drugs etc.) or through breaking intellectual property patents (which I also have some sympathy for).

Neither of these approaches though do anything to confound the mathematics that cheap prevention across hundreds of people is more cost effective than expensive interventions in just a few cases


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