There was a highly misleading article by David B. Agus, a professor at the University of Southern California, in this weekend's edition of the Wall Street Journal. A Doctor in Your Pocket suggests that "tiny health monitors" and "tailored therapies" will lead to a future in which people will live disease-free lives up to age 100 or older. Agus exaggerates personal health technology's near-term potential to promote a greater role for government in health care.
Agus claims that with enough information we can either prevent diseases or catch them early enough to nip them in the bud. I agree that the more we know about diseases the better equipped we will be to prevent them or at least catch them during the earliest, most treatable stages. I also believe that new technologies will enable us to gather and analyze much more health data than was previously practical. But we are a very long way from being able to prevent most diseases and cure those that can't be prevented. Agus admits as much when he acknowledges that his strategy will only work up to about age 100. What he doesn't acknowledge is that people begin aging much earlier.
The point of the article seems to be that we must let government gather and use all available health data. Agus complains that privacy concerns are getting in the way: "...we can't expect the health care industry to continue to innovate and grow if we continue to hoard health information." Since Medicare pays over half of our country's medical bills, Agus reasons, then letting Medicare harvest and analyze its patients' data would enable Medicare to improve public health.
Agus argues that if we knew more about the body then we could put more emphasis on preventive medicine as opposed to diagnostic medicine. That's a popular view among people who want to see more government involvement in health care, but it assumes that most if not all diseases can be prevented. Agus also says he is a "big proponent" of genetic profiling for consumers, but as I discussed here these services offer most people little more than entertainment.
It's what Agus doesn't say that really worries me. Surely he knows that people don't always choose the healthiest alternative even when presented with ample information. In a free society, individuals have the right to eat and drink what they want, exercise or not exercise as they prefer, and make other tradeoffs that involve health risks. And there are, contrary to Agus, legitimate reasons for keeping private health data private.
Worse, Agus seems unaware that most health care innovation comes from private individuals and companies--not government. His vision of bringing all health databases together in a "centralized network" could actually discourage innovation.