Don’t forget medicine in the next scientific revolutions

I imagine historians looking back at the decades spanning 1990-2020 will describe those years as the most unimpressive of the past two centuries in terms of technological progress.

In medicine, we witnessed life expectancy plateau and even decline for a period of years. Energy production via fracking became more efficient but hardly revolutionary.

The excitement of space travel was muted with humanity being confined to low Earth orbit. Even the U.S. military was a victim of stagnation as we fought a global war on terrorism with weapon systems that originated from the R&D labs of the 1970s and ’80s.

However, I think there has been an awakening.

Last spring while walking through an outdoor mall I saw dozens of people stop, pull out their phones, and watch astronauts launch to the International Space Station on a U.S.-manufactured rocket for the first time in nearly a decade.

In the spring of 2021, Space X reused that same rocket for another crewed mission. In our own region, we are once again on the cusp of expanding the nuclear frontier with the introduction of small modular reactors.

It is starting to feel like we are picking up where we left off nearly half a century ago.

While industrial and technological revolutions are exciting for their clear impact on human progress, we shouldn’t overlook the realm of biology.

In 1920 the life expectancy for an American was 53 years of age and less than 4% of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was medicine related.

Today life expectancy is 79 and we spend 18% of GDP on medicine.

The medical revolution of the past increased human lifespans but at the cost of greater consumption of economic resources. The challenge of the upcoming medical revolution is whether it can expand human life expectancy, improve quality of life in old age and deliver lower costs for society in the long run.

Whether those lower costs are delivered by actual price decreases or older generations having the ability to “finance” them by working longer is relatively immaterial.

Those three goals are daunting, but I think there is hope in light of recent developments.

The first pandemic in a century was brought to heel with mRNA (and more traditional) vaccines.

It seems like we routinely see new studies released, such as researchers developing temporary pacemakers that are absorbed into the body after a few weeks eliminating the need for surgical removal. A new CRISPR-based treatment (think: gene editing) has shown promise for the first time in treating people with the genetic disease transthyretin amyloidosis with what will hopefully be a once-in-a-lifetime treatment.

When rereading Michael Crichton’s classic novel, “Jurassic Park,” it’s funny to read about characters imagining we are on the brink of a biological revolution in 1990.

Looking back, it seems naïve. But if we are on the brink of another medical revolution, it’s exciting to think about the implications.

The last revolution allowed grandparents to become the norm, made health and long-term care a necessity, and expanded the scope of public and private health sectors.

We re-engineered society, economies, and our expectations around increased life expectancies. Admittedly, that’s a tall order for future medical improvements. At the very least though it would be a welcome surprise if great grandparents or even great, great grandparents became a common part of the human experience.

Nicholas Haberling is a partnership advisor at Community First Bank & HFG Trust in Kennewick.

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