Marginal improvements

Any human endeavor which requires spending money eventually reaches a point of diminishing returns, and health care is no different:

Health care reached the point of diminishing returns about fifty years ago. 100 years ago America spent 3% of GDP on health care and people lived to about 60. Today we spend about 15% on health care and people live to about 80. A good portion of that increase in life expectancy is due to better food and less violence. It is axiomatic that as things like health care improve, the cost of further improvement escalates. The marginal return on investment declines.

Getting people to about 100 would cost — what, 75% of GDP? Inevitably there will be some starry-eyed character who cries “But you can’t put a price on people’s lives!” Sure you can. In fact, it’s the only thing you can do, inasmuch as the money tree in the back yard is not producing.

I figure everything that threatens me on a regular basis — blood-sugar anomalies, hypertension, osteoarthritis, Al Gore — will be gone shortly after I am. However, I don’t even want to imagine the price tag for any one of those developments.

Then again, we do know how to do health care right. We just don’t:

America has the greatest health care system on earth. It is super cheap, with lots of options and a high degree of customer satisfaction. It is called veterinary medicine. American pets get better health care than 95% of the world population for pennies. The reason is there are few barriers to suppliers so there are many options along the price curve. There’s also incentives to innovate. My Vet has world class lab equipment because it helps attract business.

On the other hand, few pets live to 100 or 80 or even 60.



  1. mushroom »

    30 March 2015 · 6:00 pm

    A lot of the improvement in average life expectancy is due to the decrease in infant and early childhood mortality. Immunizations keep younger children from dying. Antibiotics prevent death from infections due to injuries in early adulthood. Life expectancy goes up.

    Medical technology vastly improves quality of life for people like me. I would be stone-blind by now without the advances in cataract surgery, acrylic lens and robotics.

    For everything else, the record is mixed. I believe that someday the medical profession will admit cholesterol is essential and cholesterol-lowering medications have contributed to Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

  2. CGHill »

    30 March 2015 · 6:10 pm

    If that be the case, I threw away the Zocor just in time.

  3. fillyjonk »

    30 March 2015 · 6:28 pm

    Yup to what mushroom said.

    Actually, a few years ago, it was reported that someone who makes it to 70 can expect on average 15 more years of life….whereas newborn babies that same year were having a predicted “average” lifespan of 74 or so. (Makes a nice conundrum to present to biology classes when I do stuff like life tables. A few people always figure it out without prompts from me).

    Also – pets may not “literally” live to 100 or thereabouts, but there’s the whole concept of “dog years.” My parents had a cat that made it to 21 and the vet suggested that in a human, the equivalent would be just about 100.

    And yeah – in recent years what veterinary science can do has really taken off – animal lifespans have increased greatly because of better care. It’s increasingly common to see cats make it to close to 20 and dogs make it past 10.

  4. CGHill »

    30 March 2015 · 6:42 pm

    I have heard tell of two different schipperkes (shortish Belgian shepherds) who lived to 22.

    I’m eight years away from 70. I’m not quite sure I want to make plans for 85 just yet.

  5. Joseph Hertzlinger »

    2 April 2015 · 12:19 am

    My cat is almost 18. If she weren’t a quadruped she’d be using a walker.

RSS feed for comments on this post