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Please Dehumanize Cancer Care

Decreasing the cost of health care is economic development.
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IBM's Watson in Yorktown Heights, New York. (Photo: Clockready/Wikimedia Commons)

IBM's Watson in Yorktown Heights, New York. (Photo: Clockready/Wikimedia Commons)

Demographic decline equals economic contraction. Fewer people demand fewer goods. Worse, retirees outnumber the workforce. Who will foot the bill for geriatric health care? Mr. Watson—come here—I want to see you:

U.S. cancer care is headed for a crisis, warned the American Society of Clinical Oncology in March. Cancer cases are projected to soar 42 percent by 2025 as America’s population ages, but the number of oncologists trained to treat them will grow by only 28 percent. That mismatch is likely to exacerbate existing inequalities in care between the fraction of patients treated by specialists at major academic centers and the many more who get care at community clinics or hospitals, mainly from general oncologists.

Enter a game show champion to save the day.

An attempt to transform cancer care is a major part of IBM’s efforts to make money from its Jeopardy!-winning Watson software. The company aims to offer health-care organizations a cheaper way to improve care by turning oncology expertise into a commodity.

Let alone the shrinking number of workers underwriting health care costs, the supply of health care employees will fail to keep up with demand. This imbalance should drive up salaries. But society cannot afford such a burden. Hospitals will need more people at a cheaper wage. Something has to give.

Enter IBM. Watson software would mimic health care expertise. Oncology gets better and cheaper. The demographic scope of care increases while the number of people laboring decreases.

In this sense, demographic decline equals economic expansion. If the economy grows by four percent but health care costs two percent of GDP, then the net gain is two percent. If the economy grows by 3.5 percent but health care costs only one percent of GDP, then the net gain is 2.5 percent.

What tech can do is make health care more affordable and efficient. Lesser costs translate into greater economic growth, despite demographic decline. It's like agriculture. With ever less workers, yields increase. It's like manufacturing. With ever less employees, output increases. Via innovation, the economy grows as the population falls.

Jim Russell, a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development, writes regularly for Pacific Standard.