Medical research bubble bursting

The mainstream press continues to wail about losing the “war against cancer” because 14,000 NIH bureaucrats aren’t at their desks pushing their papers and pencils during the government “shutdown.” Of course, as I told you last week, this reporting is ridiculous. NIH was never really winning the war on cancer.

However, the entire medical research sector is facing a very different, very real crisis of its own…

A dangerous medical research bubble that’s about to burst. And it will cause all kinds of fallout in the medical world.

Bubbles can occur in any sector of the economy. And they usually happen when the government interferes with normal free market behavior. We saw this with the banks, stock market, housing market, and student loans most recently. So, it doesn’t surprise me that we are now experiencing a medical research bubble as well.

This bubble started innocently enough in the mid-1990s…and I even had a small part in its creation.

You see, in the mid-1990s, Republicans took control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years. And they worked well with the Democratic President Bill Clinton. Together, they achieved a balanced budget for the first time in decades.

With some of the surplus, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-Oregon), and then Sen. Arlen Specter (R/D Pennsylvania) wanted to allocate more money to the National Institutes of Health for medical research. Specifically, they wanted to see more research into every disease, not picking favorites. I argued to increase the paltry support for studying CAM therapies. And alternative medicine.

I was friends with these Senate leaders and one of the few physicians in Washington interested and knowledgeable about medical history. So, they asked me to make a presentation at the Congressional hearings on doubling the NIH budget.

In the end, Congress did double the allocation of money to NIH for medical research. And it seemed like a good idea at the time. There was even a little more funding for CAM and natural and nutritional medicine.

And at first, there was principled and dedicated leadership at NIH to oversee that CAM research effort. Unfortunately, that all changed when their budgets continued to grow. Eventually, bloated budgets just led to more science bureaucrats on the payroll. (Not to mention nightmarish traffic jams on Rockville Pike.) And the CAM office became a political football for the NIH bureaucrats.

Around the country, large, academic medical centers responded in turn to keep up with government spending. Many medical centers even began CAM research programs to scoop up all available NIH dollars. And they all grew bigger and bigger as the 21st century began.

I remember standing on a street corner in Philadelphia in the late 1990s with my former professor of surgery at the University of Pennsylvania, the late, highly distinguished Dr. Brooke Roberts.

City workers demolished the entire Convention Center that covered four city blocks. And my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania replaced it with medical research labs and facilities seemingly overnight.

I remember my old professor asking, “How are they ever going to fill all these buildings?” He knew that Penn, like all other academic medical centers, relied on government research funding. And he had been around long enough to see how the pendulum swings. And everything that rises must fall.

At lunch one day, Dr. Roberts told me that his grandfather had been the President of the Pennsylvania Railroad. It was once the largest employer in the country. But it went bankrupt in the 1960s and is now just a stop on the Monopoly board. Thankfully, my professor had gone into medicine instead of the family business.

Of course, Congressional spending did eventually have to slow down. And research funding went back to “normal” levels. And now we are looking at “negative” growth for the first time in history, at least at NIH. As a result, much of the medical research world is going into a panic.

But Penn, the single largest recipient of medical research funding, saw the writing on the wall before the bubble burst. Over the last seven years, it raised $4 billion to add to its endowment. I even served on one of the fundraising committees. This step will generate an extra $200 million per year to help meet the “shortfall” in government funding. A tidy sum, even in terms of NIH largesse.

But NIH hasn’t been so fortunate.

They don’t have an endowment. And they can’t ask for money from anyone but Congress. And that well started to dry up a few years ago. (This is another reason why the idea of a government academic research institute doesn’t really make sense in the real world.)

So how will they continue to feed the monster?

And yes, it is a monster.

It spends  billions of tax dollars on meaningless research. In fact, most NIH research does nothing at all to advance real health issues or medical practice in ways that are safe, effective, natural, and affordable.

So, we doubled NIH’s research funding starting back in the mid-1990s. But did we get double the results? In a purely mathematical sense, two times zero is still zero.

That is why we don’t need more research, but different research.

Of course, chronic disease rates are worse than ever.

Wouldn’t we be better off starting over with NIH–and getting a refund on our taxes?

What’s the one thing not derailed by the bursting of the medical research bubble and the government shutdown? Or even the budget crisis?

The Affordable Care Act, of course.

That deadline will hit us all in a few months.  You can count on that. As always, I will continue to bring word from the front lines about how you can protect your and your family’s health as we face these changes together.