Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Your Heart Medication, Brought to You by the Wall Street Journal

We must address the low standing of America test scores amongst industrialized nations in math and science, the very subjects most likely to affect our future competitiveness.
- George W. Bush at a press conference introducing his education program, Jan. 23, 2001 Link to Transcript

Do labels matter? Maybe not. But, the way we label things does say a lot about our values and priorities.

I was riding on an elevator yesterday, and as I glanced up to the news monitor to avoid having to make eye contact with any of my fellow passengers in the packed car, I read that a new Pfizer cholesterol drug had not performed well in studies. Link to UPI Story After I finished the one-sentence item, I kept staring at it, again, doing anything I could to look away from the people crowding my personal space. And that’s when I noticed that the heading on the story was “business news.”

I defy anyone to tell me that this label doesn’t matter.

The U.S. used to be a world leader in science. That is clearly not the case anymore. As the quote that started this piece shows, Bush may have paid lip service to this fact, but he has done nothing but help the very people perpetuating the current healthcare system. After all, it is hard to trust a guy pledging to help science studies, when his actions on stem cell research and global warming, among other issues, show he treats science like you would treat a snake in your bedroom – with fear and loathing.

In a 2003 study of the math, science and reading skills of 15-year-olds worldwide, the U.S. ranked 28th, with countries like Latvia (27th), Hungary (25th), Poland (24th), and the Slovak Republic (21st) ahead of us. The Russians were 29th, which should give some solace to octogenarians who think that we are still fighting the Cold War.

For science, we did a little better, placing 22nd, still trailing Iceland (21st), Belgium (14th), the Czech Republic (9th), and those pesky Slovaks (20th). Just think at how high the old Czechoslovakia would have ranked? Again, the Greatest Generation will be happy, as the Russians were two spots behind us.

Oh, and if you are saying to yourself, “It’s okay, American kids have become more interested in other subjects, I’ll bet we ranked right at the top in reading skills!”, guess again. The U.S. placed 18th, but at least we crushed the Slovaks this time, who ranked 31st.

Link to Study Data

Obviously, it would be foolish to latch onto any one reason as to why American students have a ranking that would get many NCAA basketball coaches fired. But, I think it shows a bit of a window into the national thought process when the failure of a new drug is business news, not health news, or, heaven forbid, just news. No, we know what hard news is: the result of the autopsy of Anna Nicole Smith’s son (at least that was the story on CNN when I walked past the television this morning).

People have written entire books on the evils of the pharmaceutical industry. I am not going to tackle that behemoth of a subject here. It is clear, however, that the pharmaceutical industry is a very large, very successful money-making machine. As a rule, I would rather trust my health to people who have as a goal finding cures, not maximizing profits.

The fact that a drug failing is business news speaks volumes as to the nation’s values on health and science.

Maybe the tide is turning. All three leading Democratic presidential contenders have announced comprehensive health plans. Link to AP/Yahoo! Article Edwards has even admitted, straight out, that he will raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans to pay for his plan. What a difference 14 years makes. Hillary Clinton, until recently, was trying to live down the Clintons’ failed healthcare initiative. Now, having a healthcare plan is virtually required of all the Democratic candidates. Maybe it’s a sign that people are waking up, that the way this country handles its healthcare issues, from research to how patients seek treatment, has to change.

The current system is so ingrained, and so profitable, that there is a virtually unscalable mountain to climb. But, I look forward to the day, sometime in my lifetime, when drug research is not categorized as business news. Maybe by then, American students will have even overtaken their Slovak counterparts, with the Belgians and Czechs in sight. You never know.