The Commodification and Commercialization of Medicine and Medical Technology

Some aspects of healthcare are unquestionably commercial. The pills that only a doctor can prescribe are things, and a price must be attached to their acquisition. Hospital overhead becomes part of healthcare costs. Physicians' services (either for procedures or for time spent with a patient) involve a commercial aspect, though they are not just commercial. The locus of ethical decision-making shifts as the mechanism for financing shifts. Whereas physicians once made decisions on behalf of patients or with patients

(according to principles of beneficence or autonomy), decisions are being made by corporations on behalf of populations or in the interest of reducing costs to populations. As this happens marketing of goods and services becomes an investment opportunity, not necessarily in the interest of conserving resources, but in the interest of creating capital for investors.

Medicine and medical technologies are increasingly considered in economic terms as commodities. It is fashionable to think of healthcare as an "industry," and as such the activities of the players—doctors and patients, providers and consumers, hospitals and healthcare organizations, equipment manufacturers and pharmaceutical suppliers—are seen in terms of market value rather than values deriving from a personal healing encounter. Value becomes a matter of money rather than a matter of conscience. It is the job of a market economy to distribute goods and services, bringing together consumers and products. Markets may be trusted to be free (laissez-faire) to the extent they do not violate their own frame of reference. Markets must be valued and controlled on their own terms, such as in the admonition, caveat emptor (let the buyer beware). But when vast public resources are involved, public oversight is also required. Deceptive or coercive marketing practices cannot be tolerated and require regulatory restraints on market freedoms.

DIRECT-TO-CONSUMER MARKETING. The growing trend of direct-to-consumer marketing needs to be evaluated in terms of the integrity of the information provided and the nature of the appeals made. Informed consumers make good partners in the healing relationships. Advertisements whose message is "Ask your doctor if this pill is right for you" provide little or no information about the product being promoted. Hair loss, impotence (erectile dysfunction), un-happiness, and sleeplessness are all subjects to be discussed with physicians and for which pharmacologic remedies may be expected. Once the expectation is created, it may be harder for the physician to assess risks (such as addiction liability) or side effects versus benefits, especially if a drug company has already courted the physician with gifts ranging from pens and notepads (bearing the name of a drug) to dinners (where "information" about products is offered) to vacations in expensive resorts.

The traditional way of mediating such claims is through scientific research, published in peer-reviewed journals. Consumers have access via the Internet to all sorts of information that does not receive such academic scrutiny. In the United States, federal regulatory agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the FTC, are charged with evaluating the research on which such claims are made. Yet much of the research is performed or funded by product manufacturers, and results that are unfavorable to the product may be suppressed, resulting in a publication bias in which only positive results are published and leading to a false (unscientific, but commercially advantageous) impression of the efficacy of a particular product (Otto et al.). Expensive high-technology screening tests (such as computed tomography scans for heart disease and cancer) are similarly promoted as educational information directly to consumers even though these tests' lack of specificity (resulting in false positives and negatives) causes physicians to question their value (Lee and Brennan). The ethical standard for judging such advertisements would be the truthfulness of the claims made. But presenting such appeals as informational when they are in fact promotional is a manipulation of demand, especially when the research on which such claims are made is not presented or, even worse, when it is skewed (Wolfe).

Several dramatic examples bring into mind the ethical constraints that might be necessary on advertising designed to create markets. Cosmetic surgery to improve a person's subjective sense of one's own beauty, for example, is medical in a way that is different from reconstructive surgery to repair a face damaged by an accident, although both involve similar skills and may be performed by the same plastic surgeon. Similarly (in an economic sense) assisted reproductive technologies, such as in vitro fertilization, may like other medical treatments relieve the distress of a childless couple, although the availability of such services is based more on the ability to pay than on need. The assisted reproduction industry commodifies the product, a human pregnancy, in ways that are more ambiguous ethically than they are commercially (Macklin and White). Technologies such as assisted reproduction along with the emerging genetic technologies, as well as more established technologies such as safe abortion, intensive care, and organ transplantation, help one to imagine limits on commercialization, advertising, and marketing (Dyer, 1997). As Allen Verhey noted in a 1997 article, "There are some boundaries and limits to the sphere of the marketplace. We do not want a market in which body parts are profitable; we prohibit the sale of organs, even those of the dead. We do not want babies sold at auction. Some things are not to be commodified and commercialized"

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