HEALTHCARE
June 10, 2010

$Billions for Viagra?

We spend $77 billion on "medicalized" conditions like erectile dysfunction. Is this a wise use of healthcare dollars?

Male pattern baldness. Erectile dysfunction. Menopause. Are these medical problems or part of normal human life? According to spending figures, they've all become medical problems. And more is being spent on them then on cancer, heart disease or public health.

Truly, we've become Viagra nation.

Spending more on treating these conditions than on treating cancer and heart disease certainly sounds like a case of misplaced national priorities. The reality of the situation may be a bit more complex.

A study headed by Brandeis sociologist Peter Conrad looked at 12 conditions that have been described as medicalized by medical organizations. Like the ones above, they're conditions that were once seen as part of normal human life or within the range of normal human behavior but are now often dealt with as medical conditions. The researchers looked at medical spending on these conditions—payments to doctors, hospitals, pharmacies, physicians, etc. And they found that over $77 billion dollars was spent on these 12 conditions in 2005, about 4% of nationwide health care spending.

The other conditions considered in the study were anxiety and behavioral disorders, body image, normal sadness, obesity, sleep disorders, substance-related disorders, normal pregnancy, infertility, and ADHD.

Spending more on treating these conditions than on treating cancer and heart disease certainly sounds like a case of misplaced national priorities. The reality of the situation may be a bit more complex.

There's certainly nothing wrong with doctors spending time and effort on helping moderately well people live happier lives by treating sexual problems and baldness, if the treatments are effective. The question is whether this time and effort is coming at the expense of treating people with more serious conditions, such as heart disease. Ideally, doctors should be able to do both. But nowadays, the argument is often put forth that there simply isn't enough health care to go around: distinctions need to be made between necessary and less necessary treatments, similar to the way patients in emergency rooms are triaged.

Is treatment of minor conditions coming at the expense of treating major ones? Nobody really knows yet. This study was a start at analyzing the issue from a financial perspective.

The results of the study were published in the June 2010 issue of Social Science and Medicine.

Peter Conrad, PhD, is a professor of social sciences at Brandeis University who has published nine books or monographs and over 100 articles and chapters, dating back to 1975.

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