The Cost Of Miracles

Yglesias responds to the now FDA-approved technology that can allow limited sight to the blind through the use of an optical implant, video camera and belt-worn processor:

Of course the ability to cure the blind could also lead to “higher health care costs” (cue threatening music). Most likely it won’t actually make “health care costs” much higher, simply because the share of the population with severe retina damage is pretty small. But it’s still an amazing breakthrough. Restoring the sight of blind people is genuinely miraculous. And further technological breakthroughs to ameliorate more common ailments would be good things, not bad things. Which is why I don’t love the rhetoric of health care costs. Inefficiency is costly, and we should strike to purge it from the system. But new cures may be expensive without being costly at all. Blindness is costly. Chronic lower back pain is costly. Cancer is costly. Finding ways to treat these problems will likely lead to the expenditure of funds on the treatments, but that’s because the treatments are valuable.

Austin Frakt worries about overuse of new technologies:

Sure, restoring sight to people with blindness, relieving back pain, finding and curing cancer are all good to the extent the technologies work relative to alternatives and to the extent they are applied to people who need them. But what you find is that the technology to restore sight is, decades later, enhancing the vision of those with 20-20 sight. You find the cure for back pain that involves advanced imaging isn’t any better than physical therapy, but it is now a multi-billion dollar industry. You find that cancer screening is being applied to people who are at very low risk of cancer and, as a result, that screening is actually causing harm and costing us a fortune.