Top 10 Health Business Ethics Stories

The current issue of The Harvard Health Letter features the “Top 10 Health Stories of 2006.”

What the casual reader of the HHL story might not have noticed is that most of their top 10 health stories are also significant business ethics stories.

Here’s their list, with quick pointers to the business ethics issues. (The bolded headlines are theirs; the comments after are mine.)

  1. A new shot in the arm against cancer. I already blogged about this story a few months ago. I pointed out that marketing a product aimed at girls in their pre-sexual years, with the aim of preventing sexually transmitted disease, is going to pose some challenges.
  2. Trans is fat non grata. Restaurants and manufacturers of food products are getting slammed for selling foods that contain trans fats. Thing is, no one business is going to sell enough to an individual in order to be responsible for the net effect of a high-trans-fat diet on that individual. I blogged about this story just last week.
  3. Has Massachusetts figured it out? (Universal health insurance coverage, that is.) On the surface, this is a public policy issue, not a business ethics issue. But of course, lots of businesses are involved in lobbying to influence public policy. Do companies with a place at policy-making tables have an obligation to use their influence for the public good, or for the good of shareholders? Or both?
  4. New treatment for macular degeneration. No obvious business ethics angle, except to the extent that there are always ethical issues involved in bringing a “promising” new drug to market, especially when potential patients have something as valuable as their eyesight at stake.
  5. Germ warfare—and the germs are winning some battles. If — and I say if — drug companies are really dedicated to saving lives and promoting human health, they should work harder on finding new and innovative antibiotics, and work less hard on developing more “lifestyle” drugs.
  6. Vaccines, kid stuff no more. What looks to physicians like extending a treatment to a new group of patients looks to pharma marketers as expanding their market. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But we should always be ready to ask questions about new categories of health expenditures like this.
  7. Drug approvals—with strings attached. The aforementioned strings come in the form of an obligation for companies to engage in careful monitoring of patients/customers. Pharma’s track-record at this sort of thing is spotty. What’s the right set of incentives to put in place to make sure that companies that are of course seeking profits don’t jeopardize human health in the process?
  8. Bird flu preparations: Don’t chicken out now. This is probably a classic case of a situation where private innovation can’t be relied upon…unless it’s private innovation stimulated by big fat public subsidies.
  9. Calls for FDA reform getting louder and clearer. Among the key reforms being proposed: do more to monitor the safety and efficacy of drugs after they’re on the market. The pharma industry can make this harder, or easier. It’s an important ethical decision (or, really, the net result of dozens of decisions made in particular cases.)
  10. Finally, a vitamin makes the grade. OK, this story about Vitamin D has me stumped. No clear business ethics angle. But by now, you get the point…

The lesson: across the world, most health care is delivered either by, or with the help of, business. (Even in places like Canada — with its wonderful publicly-funded healthcare system — corporations do a lot of research and development, and pretty much all pharmaceuticals and medical devices are made and distributed by corporations.) The decisions corporations make matter to our health. So, it follows almost trivially that most health-related news is also going to be related to business ethics.
[Thanks to the Women’s Bioethics Project Blog for the pointer.]

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