Disease Engineering

Imagine you contract pneumonia.

You have a fever of 103, you’re coughing up thick, yellow sputum, breathing is getting difficult. You hobble to the doctor, who then fails to prescribe you antibiotics. You get some kind of explanation about unnecessary exposure to antibiotics to avoid creating resistant organisms, yadda yadda. So you make do with some Tylenol®, cough syrup, and resign yourself to a few lousy days of suffering.

Five days into your illness, you’ve not shown up for work, you’re having trouble breathing, and you’re getting delirious. An emergency trip to the hospital follows, where a bronchoscopy is performed (an imaging scope threaded down your airway) and organisms recovered for diagnosis. You’re put on a ventilator through a tube in your throat to support your breathing and treated with intravenous antibiotics. Delayed treatment permits infection to escape into the fluid around your lungs, creating an “empyema,” an extension of the infection that requires insertion of a tube into your chest through an incision to drain the infection. You require feeding through a tube in your nose, since the ventilator prevents you from eating through your mouth. After 10 days, several healing incisions, and a hospital bill totaling $75,000, you’re discharged only to be face eights weeks of rehabilitation because of the extreme toll your illness extracted. Your doctor also advises you that, given the damage incurred to your lungs and airways, you will be prone to more lung infections in the future, and similar situations could recur whenever a cold or virus comes long.

A disease treatable by taking a two week, $20 course of oral antibiotics at home has been converted into a lengthy hospital stay that generated extravagant professional fees, testing, and costly supportive care. You’ve lost several weeks of income. You’re weak and demoralized, frightened that the next flu or virus could mean another trip to the hospital.

Such a scenario would be unimaginable with a common infection like pneumonia, or it would be grounds for filing a malpractice lawsuit. But, as horrific as it sounds in another sphere of healthcare, it is, in effect, analogous to how heart disease is managed in current medical practice.

First, you’re permitted to develop the condition. It may require years of ignoring the telltale signs, it may require your unwitting participation in unhealthy lifestyle choices. Palliative treatments that slow, but don't stop, the progression of disease are prescribed like cholesterol drugs. The process then eventuates in some catastrophe like heart attack or similar unstable heart situation, at which point you no longer have a choice but to submit to major heart procedures. That’s when you receive your heart catheterization, coronary stents, bypass, defibrillators, etc. and you're proudly declared a "success" of medical technology.

Of course, none of these procedural treatments cures the disease, no more than a Band Aid® heals the gash in your leg. The conditions that were present that created your heart disease continue, allowing a progressive disease to worsen. At some point, you will need to return to the hospital for yet more procedures when trouble recurs, which it inevitably does.

A coronary bypass operation costs, on average $85, 653 (AHA 2008 Update; based on 2004 data). That doesn't include the $25,433 cost for the heart catheterization performed by a cardiologist to provide the surgical roadmap of your coronary arteries. If there are any complications of your procedure, then your hospital bill may total a substantially higher figure.

$85, 653 is just the upfront financial pay-off. Over the long run, your life is actually worth far more to the cardiovascular healthcare system because no heart procedure yields a permanent fix. In fact, repeated reliance on the system is the rule.

In fact, over 90% of people who enter the American cardiovascular healthcare system do so through a revolving door of multiple procedures over several years. It is truly a rare person, for instance, who undergoes a coronary bypass operation, never to be seen again the wards of the hospital because he remains healthy and free of catastrophe. A much more familiar scenario is the man or woman who undergoes two or three heart catheterizations, receives 3,4, or 6 stents, followed a few years later by a heart bypass, pacemaker, defibrillator, as well as the tests performed for catastrophe management, such as nuclear stress test, echocardiogram, laboratory blood analysis, and consultation with several specialists. Re-do bypass surgeries--a 2nd, 3rd, or 4th bypass--now comprise 25% of all bypass procedures.

The total revenue opportunity is many-fold higher than the initial 80-some thousand dollars, but instead totals hundreds of thousands of dollars per person.

What motivation can there possibly be to 1) identify coronary disease early, when in its asymptomatic stage, then 2) identify its causes, then 3) correct the causes, and finally 4) shut off the disease? You and I can accomplish this with a few hundred dollars of cost, perhaps a few thousand over many years (to cover costs of fish oil, vitamin D, niacin, and whatever else it takes to stop the expression of the disease). Nobody therefore profits substantially from your prevention effort--except you.

Then what if nobody told you that heart disease could be managed this way? That's what I mean by "disease engineering."