The Great Stagnation in medicine

Here is one bit from a very good Robert Gordon essay (which I will cover again in a while):

…if one starts down the road of comparing changes in life expectancy, the yearly rate of increase in life expectancy at birth during 1900–50, resulting in substantial part from the inventions of the Second Industrial Revolution, was 0.72 percent per year, the 0.24 percent annual rate during 1950–95.

James Le Fanu, in his 2000 history of modern medicine, lists definitive moments of modern medicine.  In the 1940s there are six such moments, seven moments in the 1950s, six moments in the 1960s, a moment in 1970 and 1971 each, and from 1973-1998, a twenty-five year period, there are only seven moments in total.

For his "Dates of the discovery and sources of the more important antibiotics," the list starts in 1929-1940 with penicillin and ends in…1963, with Gentamicin.

Ezra has a very good post on penicillin.  Megan has a very good post and piece on the drying up of the pharmaceutical pipeline.  Andrew Jack has a very good and scary piece on the withering of pharmaceuticals innovation in the UK.

As Le Fanu writes: "Currently most medical researchers would concede that progress has slowed in recent years…"

As an aside, this has a number of political economy implications for health care reform, none of them cheery.  In both Washington and in the blogosphere, we're very focused on insurance and coverage issues, but is not the innovation pipeline more important?  Does it receive one-tenth the discussion?  One-fiftieth?  Does a slow pipeline mean that health care policy is doomed to be unpopular?

Quick quiz: is health care a growing or a shrinking part of the U.S. economy?


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