The costly divide: tech innovations and global health inequality

“You have various options for this procedure. However, we will only be able to get the best results with the newest artificial lens on the market. Unfortunately, this type of lens is not covered by any insurance provider since it is sold by a single company in U.S. dollars. Unless you can afford it out of pocket, we would have to go with the older version.”

This is part of a conversation I overheard during my time as a volunteer at a small ophthalmology hospital in Southern Turkey.

Technological innovations provide easier diagnostics and new treatment methods. Their contributions to solving general public health issues, such as the prevention of cancers and contagious diseases, are undeniable. Nevertheless, we need to take a moment to question their wider societal implications and whether they contribute to closing inequality gaps in health or increase them. As many studies suggest patients with higher SES (socioeconomic status) are the ones to first benefit most from the pioneering technologies in health care; however, they do so at the expense of creating social inequalities in health care where they were once minor or even nonexistent. As a society, we have all witnessed how a global pandemic, something our current health care system has never been tested on until 2020, has affected various SES groups differently, and people have become more scared of hospital bills than dying of COVID-19.

Considering populations of lower SES suffer more from chronic diseases and have less access to high-end care, there are multiple questions in need of clarification regarding public health inequality as we build the foundation of a technology-driven health care system on a profit-motivated schema. It must be realized that monopolization of technology in the world’s most developed countries has significant national and international ramifications. The patent structures in place allow bigger pharma companies to dictate the pricing and distribution of high-tech medical advancements globally. Even though the for-profit structure for medical companies may fuel the advancement of research from an economic point of view, they truly limit who gets to access the product. One cannot deny that technology has allowed lower costs for the production of medications and surgical procedures, and these standardized procedures are now much more widely distributed than ever before. However, could the rate of this distribution have been much faster if the price tag was lower? It is impossible to disregard high-end medical advancements that are becoming less accessible to those who do not have the privilege to afford them all around the globe.

We need not only to change the structure that allows privatized control on the production and distribution of new technological advancement, but we must also conduct research for measuring the true effect of technological advancements on health disparities and extend the discussion to potential health disparities created by technology between developed and developing countries. Only after we address such disparities, then we can continue to build a technology-driven health care system that increases accessibility of treatments.

Kayra Cengiz is a medical student.

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