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Innovation vs. Equity in Health Care Philanthropy

In the Denver Post, Dottie Lamm makes discusses Larry Ellison’s hope to live forever and his donation towards anti-aging research. ¬†Ellison has donated $450 million to anti-aging research. Ms. Lamm worries that this research will only benefit the rich.

If such measures are available only to billionaires, or millionaires, or even to “one-percenters,” I see a dismal world where healthy, spritely, “reinvented” 105-year-olds walk around, proudly robust and dementia-free. At the same time, many poor and even working-class Americans at the bottom of the economic heap would exist at the same level they do now, lacking preventive care.

Ms. Lamm also cites Bill Gates:

Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who has donated his millions mainly toward health and education in the less developed world, chides billionaires like Ellison. “It seems pretty ego-centric while we still have malaria and TB, for rich people to fund things so they can live longer,” he says.

Clearly, the safest bet and the one with the highest payoff for individuals currently living is to donate the funds to existing treatments that have been shown to be effective. In the long-run, however, Mr. Ellison’s donation may prove more effective for future generations.

Consider the case of the cell phone. Once cell phones were invented, society could have taken one of two tracks. The first track would be to use resources to provide all currently living individuals with a cell phone. A second track would be spend large amounts of money on research to improving the phone. In the end, the second path was largely chosen and we now have the smartphone. At first, smart phones were only affordable for the well off in the first world. However, as the smartphone technology has become less expensive, smart phones are now accessbile for the majority of individuals in the rich world and a large share of individuals in 2nd and 3rd World countries.

On the other hand, the smart phone route is fraught with risk. It could have been the case that smart phone technology was not feasible or was prohibitively expensive to manufacture. Clearly, every investment in R&D will not yield a revolutionary technology such as the smart phone.

Thus, do not dismiss Ellison’s donation as a purely self-interested ploy. We clearly need a balance of Ellison’s and Gates’; those who invest in the future and those who work to redistribute resources to those currently in need.

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