Alex, in his blog post from earlier today, makes a good point about placebos. Sometimes the patient is getting better anyway, and we should not attribute this effect to a placebo.
Note, however, that the best-known “anti-placebo” study is not as strong as is commonly believed. It relies heavily on a meta-analysis of other studies. Placebos appear to be effective in relieving the sufferer of pain, if nothing else. And placebos appear more effective when the ailment is continuous rather than discrete. Furthermore it is unclear how many people in the so-called no-treatment groups in fact received no treatment at all.
Robert Ehrlich’s Eight Preposterous Propositions offers a very good survey of the placebo debates. His conclusion:
In summary, the [critical] study may have shown that the placebo is not as powerful as some observers would believe, but it certainly is far from powerless.
By the way, did you know that people can become addicted to placebos, or suffer from harmful “side effects”? I’ll try to write more on “nocebos,” or negative placebos, soon, at least provided that my mental attitude holds up.
I agree with Tyler that there is some serious evidence for placebo effects, especially although not exclusively for subjective components of disease. But the evidence is usually overstated because it is confused with the natural tendency of sick people to get better. A typical medical study, for example, will compare the results of a new drug against a placebo. The improvement in health of those on the placebo is then labeled “the placebo effect” – but this is wrong. To correctly identify the effect of the placebo one needs three randomly selected groups – a treated group, a placebo group and a non-treated group. The effect of the placebo per se is then measured by the health differences between the placebo and non-treated group. Although spontaneous healing effects are large, placebo effects when measured correctly tend to be small although not non-existent.
Of the strange beliefs that Tyler examines he finds craziest the idea that slender hands might signal artistic ability. Maybe, but you know what they say about truth and fiction. Recent research indicates that finger length relative to height and the relative length of the ring to index finger can predict a great deal about male depression and intelligence, who is most at risk for heart attacks and sexual orientation. The theory is that testosterone and other hormones like androgen are the direct causes but fingers are a particulary good marker for hormone production.
The shortage of human organs for transplant grows worse every year. Better immuno-suppressive drugs and surgical techniques have raised the demand at the same time that better emergency medicine, reduced crime and safer roads have reduced organ supply. As a result, the waiting list for organ transplants is now 82,000 and rising and more than 6000 people will die this year while waiting for a transplant.
The economics of the shortage are so obvious that one popular textbook, Pindyck and Rubinfeld’s Microeconomics, uses the organ shortage to explain the effect of price controls more generally!
Perhaps because the shortage is growing, opposition to financial compensation for cadaveric donation (compensation for live donors is a distinct issue) appears to be lessening. The AMA, the American Society of Transplant Surgeons and the United Network for Organ Sharing have agreed that tests of the idea would be desirable. (A group of clerics, doctors, economists (I am a member) and others has formed to lobby for the idea – see our letter to Congress.) Currently, even tests are illegal but Representative James Greenwood (R, Pa.) has introduced a bill (H.R. 2856) that would create an exception.
Aside from the obvious benefits of saving lives, financial compensation for organ donation would likely save money. Here is a back-of-the-envelope calculation. There are some 285,000 people on dialysis in the US. Transplants are cheaper than dialysis by something like $10-$25,000 per year. About a quarter of those on dialysis are on the waiting list but perhaps as many as half could benefit from a transplant (fewer people are put on the list because of the shortage.) Let’s take the lower numbers. Assume that a quarter of the patients on dialysis could benefit from a transplant and that cost savings are $10,000 a year for five years. Then ending the shortage would save 3.5 billion dollars. Note again that this is a lower estimate. How much would it cost to end the shortage? No one knows for certain but I think a $5000 gift to the estates of organ donors would increase supply enough to greatly alleviate the shortage – that would involve doubling the supply to 12,000 for a paltry cost of $60 million. If this is not enough – raise the gift – anyway you cut it, the savings from dialysis exceed the costs of compensating donors by a large margin.
We should in fact count the value of the lives saved. If we can save 6000 lives and value each life at 3 million dollars (a lower value than what the US government typically uses in its calculations) then that is a further gain of 18 billion dollars.
A Tragedy of the Commons? Economics provides another way of looking at the crisis. Currently we have organ socialism – anyone who needs an organ is allowed access to the organ pool regardless of whether or not they contributed to the upkeep. As with other resources owned in common we get over-exploitation and under-investment. Consider, instead a “no-give, no-take policy” – only those who have previously signed their organ donor cards are allowed access to the pool. Not only is this more moral than the current policy it creates an incentive to sign your organ donor card. Signing your card becomes the ticket to joining a club – the club of people who have agreed to share their organs should they no longer need them. Equivalently signing your organ donor card becomes analogous to buying insurance. I discuss the idea further in Entrepreneurial Economics.
An organ club has in fact been started – I am not just an adviser, I’m also a member! You can join too at www.lifesharers.com.
The NYTimes reports that “introductions of new drugs plummeted last year to 17 from a high of 53 in 1996, despite a near doubling in annual research spending, to $32 billion.” The Times blames lost lab productivity from mergers. Based on close second-hand experience – my wife is a microbiologist who worked at a pharmaceutical firm as it underwent a merger – I can attest to the fact that mergers create havoc. Reaping the potential economies of scale and scope that drive the merger requires that product lines be discontinued and new lines of hierarchy established. But the power struggles involved in the transition are dissipative and disheartening. It’s not uncommon for some research programs to be canceled and then started again as new coalitons form. The uncertainty alone is draining. The best of the researchers have no stomach for this ordeal and jump ship.
The Times gets a number of things wrong, however. It can take a dozen or more years to research, develop and get a new drug approved so it makes no sense to compare this year’s research spending with this year’s output. The fact that research spending is up even though current output is down is a positive signal of potentially better things to come.
The Times also misses the fact the FDA was approving drugs faster in the late 1990’s than for many decades previously. The FDA got burned, however, as Pulitzer prize-winning critics accused it of endangering the public. Sadly, the FDA learned its lesson and slowed down. (See here for more on FDA incentives and why the Pulitzer prize committee did us all a disservice.)
Finally, the Times says nothing about why the mergers are taking place. One reason is the rising cost of pharmaceutical research. It now costs $900 million dollars to bring the average new drug to market. Firms are merging in order to better control these costs and diversify their risks. FDA reform could lower these costs.
Here is a bit from Gerd Gigerenzer:
The science fiction writer H G Wells predicted that in modern technological societies statistical thinking will one day be as necessary for efficient citizenship as the ability to read and write. How far have we got, a hundred or so years later? A glance at the literature shows a shocking lack of statistical understanding of the outcomes of modern technologies, from standard screening tests for HIV infection to DNA evidence. For instance, doctors with an average of 14 years of professional experience were asked to imagine using the Haemoccult test to screen for colorectal cancer. The prevalence of cancer was 0.3%, the sensitivity of the test was 50%, and the false positive rate was 3%. The doctors were asked: what is the probability that someone who tests positive actually has colorectal cancer? The correct answer is about 5%. However, the doctors’ answers ranged from 1% to 99%, with about half of them estimating the probability as 50% (the sensitivity) or 47% (sensitivity minus false positive rate). If patients knew about this degree of variability and statistical innumeracy they would be justly alarmed.
Scientist Tom Johnson says that humans someday might live to 350 years old. Aubrey De Grey argues that as our lifespans become longer, we might stop taking high-speed automobile trips. Why risk losing so much, and after all, what would the hurry be?
FuturePundit suggests that perhaps our level of risk-taking behavior is regulated by our biology and hormonal systems. So if driving a car doesn’t “feel too risky” now, living to 350 won’t change this, perhaps we were never making an intertemporal calculation in the first place. Furthermore, it is young males who take the most risks, and they have large numbers of years left to lose. So giving us more years might not change our behavior that much. FuturePundit then wonders how drugs and neuroscience engineering might change this conclusion. What if you could take drugs that would make you more averse to risky behavior? Might you then, sitting alone in your room, ponder your remaining 320 years and decide to clutch on to them?
When goods are prohibited, quality tends to fall because of lack of competition and legal recourse. Quality in illegal markets, however, may still beat that available from government production. Health Canada spends millions of dollars growing marijuana for distribution to patients with medical need. The government grown pot is so awful, however, that patients are returning their 30 gram bags and asking for refunds! The government certifies and advertises that their product contains 10.2% THC but independent labs report only 3% THC. Furthermore, the government pot is contaminated with lead and arsenic. “This particular product wouldn’t hold a candle to street-level cannabis,” said Philippe Lucas of Canadians for Safe Access, the group that sponsored the tests. Thanks to Eric Crampton for alerting us to this story.