Money in Medicine


When discussing the evils of big corporations, it is not uncommon for someone to put forth the conspiracy theory that pharmaceutical companies already have the cure for cancer but won’t release it because they make more money by keeping people sick. They argue that if a company developed a single pill that cured cancer, they wouldn’t be able to sell dozens of rounds of chemotherapy treatments to cancer patients. For that reason, they believe that the cure for cancer is being deliberately kept off the market in order to benefit these large companies. There are others who believe that pharmaceutical companies simply aren’t looking for a cure for cancer because they won’t be able to make as much money from a cure as they can from the treatment. Both of these theories are wrong because a total cure for cancer would be worth just as much, and probably much more, than an imperfect treatment.  

The mistake centers around the belief that sick people can be treated over and over again indefinitely, which provides a continuous source of income for a medicine company, while cured people no longer need medication and can only be charged once. This would be true if people lived forever, but since people have finite life spans, they can only be charged a finite amount of money for the treatment of any disease. Whatever the amount that the patient or their insurer is willing to pay for a lifetime of cancer treatments, they will be willing to pay an equal or greater amount for a complete cure. A cancer cure doesn’t need to cost as much as a single round of a cancer treatment. If the cure replaces a series of costly treatments, the cure can cost as much as the entire series of treatments and still be worth it for the patient. People would rather pay $12,000 for a single treatment that ends their disease than pay $100 each for a series of 100 treatments that might not work and will leave them with debilitating side effects. An effective cancer cure would be financially lucrative for any pharmaceutical company. The possibility of selling treatments does not disincentivize companies from creating cancer cures.

The reason this theory has gotten so much attention is that it plays into the distrust that many people have of big corporations. They believe that companies can only grow rich by greedily taking something away from their customers, exploiting their needs in the name of profit. The sale of medicine is viewed especially critically because it involves putting a price on human life and well-being. It is easy to think of pharmaceutical companies as immorally taking advantage of people’s suffering to make money, but where would we be without them? Pharmaceutical companies spend billions of dollars each year on research and development, risking vast sums of money on projects that may not succeed, all in an effort to create products that help those who are sick. In fact, 65% of funding for medical research in the United States comes from private companies. 

It is true that pharmaceutical companies make money, but they do so by continuing to seek out newer and better drugs to offer to their customers. While there have been scandals and negligent mishaps in the pharmaceutical industry, that does not mean that these companies are fundamentally corrupt, and it does not mean that their commitment to make a profit necessarily interferes with their ability to help patients. If these companies weren’t greedy, they wouldn’t seek out cheaper and more effective ways to treat diseases in order to beat their competitors. Medical research would be significantly less developed, to the detriment of everyone who has ever used a drug produced by a profit seeking company. The fact that a company makes money doesn’t mean that that company has to hurt anyone. One of the wonders of the free market is that people who want to help themselves are only permitted to do so by helping others. Drug companies help us with their cancer treatments, and there is nothing stopping or even disincentivizing them from one day curing the disease altogether.