Healthy octogenarians are apparently good candidates for heart surgery. Now I can't say that this surprises me. Those who take care of themselves and have good genes are experiencing longer and longer lifespans. This is basically true even in developing nations — if not to the degree that it is in developed countries. We have record numbers of people living beyond the age of 100. From a human perspective, this is an amazing achievement. But from a pessimistic, Malthusian point of view, death is useful.
Patients 80 years and older who are in overall good health are perfectly able to withstand open-heart surgery, according to the latest study of Dr. Kevin Lachapelle of the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC). His findings were presented this morning in Toronto during the 2008 Canadian Cardiovascular Congress.
"Age should not be a reason for doctors to rule out the possibility of heart surgery for their octogenarian patients," explained Dr. Lachapelle. "If patients with heart problems are otherwise in good health, this surgery can significantly improve their quality of life."
Well that's fantastic. (It really is, I'm not being sarcastic.)
Economics is fundamentally the study of the allocation of scarce resources subject to effectively infinite demand, and while we like to think that healthcare is an infinite good, it most certainly is not. Specifically, normative economics is the process of incorporating value judgments into economic arguments. Most economists avoid making value judgments because there are always exceptional cases, and because it often leads to spectacular foot-in-mouth syndrome. That said, I can't help but have thoughts that tend toward the normative when I read paragraphs like the one I quoted.
Sure, octogenarians may survive and even have a net positive outcome. But what are the opportunity costs associated with operating on individuals who have already exceeded the mean lifespan for someone of their sex? Are we operating on these folks while leaving those that are younger — and therefore potentially more productive — in the lurch? Are we forgoing an operation on someone much younger? How does the fact that the average 80 year old is not as productive as the average 40 year old factor into this equation? Generally taxpayers want something in return for their investment. Do we want the government subsidizing a procedure on someone whose primary income is their monthly Social Security check, and if the answer is yes, how do we prioritize who goes first? How do we manage that inevitable wait list? Generally we subsidize healthcare because we expect some kind of benefit in return, usually in the form of economic output.
I've worded my questions provocatively, but I don't really have an opinion one way or the other, except to say that I'm glad that I won't be the one who has to make these decisions in the coming years. These questions aren't purely rhetorical either: these are very real, difficult questions that are going to have to be addressed as we move inexorably toward some kind of basic universal health coverage in the United States.
As I pointed out yesterday, Americans don't like to be told "No," and we don't like to wait for things, and I mostly include myself in that generalization. If we postpone, or worse, opt to forgo very costly surgeries on the elderly because a cost-benefit analysis doesn't add up, will our culture be able to accept it?
My guess is no, and as soon as it happens, there will be some very ugly public political lynchings.
What are your thoughts?