Few professions can be as economically wasteful as medicine. Sure, we all love to bitch about politicians, but medicine really should take the award for financial pissing. We build wonderful technologies that can look at the inside of a person’s heart, check the electrical activity of the brain, read any component in a person’s blood, and even watch a baby move inside of the womb. However, all of these devices are made unnecessarily expensive by using non-standardized equipment and are being produced as new models that do nothing to bring down the cost of older versions.
Let’s take a look at the EKG. Any complaints of chest pain or a sensation like the heart is about to leap out of the chest will instantly be met with the EKG. This machine records the electrical activity through the heart and can be used in the diagnosis of arrhythmias, heart attacks, enlarge areas of the heart, and even certain electrolyte deficiencies. At its core, this device is simply comprised of 10 wires that are connected to an oscilloscope (a fancy voltmeter that you probably saw in college physics). I did some searching online and found that an oscilloscope can be had for about $150. The rest of the equipment needed to build an EKG can be found at Radio Shack for pocket change. In the real world, purchasing a new EKG machine runs about $2,000. What’s worse, this device will only print out the tracings of the heart as a snapshot. Getting a machine that uses a screen to show real-time activity of the heart cost even more. Then, once you have this paper-based tracing, you’ll have to insert it into the patient’s paper chart. The only way to get the same result into an electronic medical record is to buy a more expensive upgrade that can connect to a computer. Currently, the total package runs for about $4,500. The end result is that the physician will carry this charge to the patient for about $100 per EKG ($10 after insurance reimbursement). I imagine that an entrepreneur could build an EKG machine that connects directly into the computer’s USB port-complete with interpretation software-for less than $50. The computer’s monitor would serve as the oscilloscope; and a standard laser printer could print out the tracing on paper if desired.
Another unnecessarily expensive piece of medical equipment is the ultrasound. A solid high-resolution machine runs for almost $100,000. That’s a pretty hefty sum for a computer that merely interprets sound waves. One company has released a USB-based ultrasound probe that connects directly into the computer. According to press releases, it sells for just under $4,000. However, looking over these probes I’m concerned about the quality of the images. But the end result is the same: medical equipment can be produced at a cheap cost. The current system does nothing to reward us for developing innovative, cost-effective devices. Instead, we continue to throw away money on machines that can be produced by hobbyists for 1/100 of the cost.