Talking Dollars and Saving Lives

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Because it’s possible to put a price on just about anything in a capital-driven society, it’s possible to attach a cost to life, too. But would you want to? What is money worth when you or your loved pass on? I’m sorry to launch this article on such a grim tone, but it’s an issue that can surface in all our lives and therefore needs to be discussed.

 It cropped up in the news as of late, in the form of expensive, implantable defibrillators that keep an erratic heart beating properly. A recent issue of the New England Journal of Medicine discussed the merits of these defibrillators and concluded that they justify the cost, which sits at about $28,000 each, but can range anywhere from $34,000 to $70,000 for every additional year of life they guarantee. The well-respected medical journal said the U.S. government was right to foot the bill for the defibrillators.

 Come again? That’s right, back in January 2005, the Feds decided that Medicare would cover these devices for people who have heart disease and are at risk of sudden death. And that’s great news, because why make these amazing medical advances where nobody can afford to use them? In any event, they are accepted as a cost-effective way to protect people’s lives when their heart is in ill repair. The new study, out of Duke University, was meant to see if defibrillators were a good choice, money-wise, for people with less extreme heart problems.

 Researchers looked at both the costs and benefits associated with using a defibrillator in patients with heart disease whose long-term outlook isn’t very good. They found that the device adds anywhere from two to six years to the life of a patient. And that’s where the figure comes in: each year added on will cost — all expenses totaled — between $34,000 and $70,000. The issue is that since about 500,000 adults could need them, this could turn out to be quite the expense for the government.

 But the researchers maintain that it’s worth the money — especially considering the life-extension benefits that defibrillators provide. And especially when you compare them to other treatments. For instance:

 –Kidney dialysis keeps people alive at the cost of $50,000 for each year. –Treating high blood pressure runs between $5,000 and $50,000 a year. –Statin drug treatment costs $21,000 a year. –Heart bypass surgery costs $18,000.

 It may come to the point where scientists can discover how to predict which patients will benefit from the devices, so they aren’t used unnecessarily. In any event, technological advances bring hope to patients who desperately need it. And what’s the value of life? Somehow, I can’t seem to attach a dollar sign to that.

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