The pharmaceutical industry and altruism

January 16, 2017

Pär SegerdahlI am currently thinking about a common gut reaction to the pharmaceutical industry. I sometimes have this reaction too, so this is an examination of my own reaction.

The reaction is a feeling of discomfort, when a central actor in the management of something as important as human health and disease is a multibillion-dollar industry with profit as overall goal.

Is it really possible to combine such a businesslike aim with a genuine desire to cure the sick?

Let us compare with another industry that radiates more compassionate desire to cure, namely, alternative medicine. Here too products are sold to people with various ailments. There is clearly a market and a business mindset. Yet the actors on this market radiate more love of mankind. It can sometimes even appear as if the products were manufactured and sold out of pure goodness!

What makes these business practices seem imbued with good will to cure? I suggest that it depends on the strong belief in the healing effects of the products. I do not deny that many of the products have beneficial effects. My point is only that beliefs about good effects are at the forefront and can make the provision of the products appear like an ethical act of noble actors.

The pharmaceutical industry is different from alternative medicine partly through being prohibited from being permeated with beliefs about the healing effects of the products. It is actually illegal for the pharmaceutical industry to act as nobly and compassionately as the actors within alternative medicine. It could invite quackery.

The pharmaceutical industry operates on a highly regulated market. There is specific legislation for pharmaceutical products and special authorities supervising the industry. Satisfying the quality and safety demands often requires decades of research and development. This means huge investment costs, which presupposes profits.

This is how we have solved the problem of providing safe and effective treatments through the health care system. By having a pharmaceutical industry that is not permeated with good faith and good intentions, but instead is highly regulated and supervised. The products must satisfy the quality requirements, period. Beliefs and good intentions are irrelevant.

Research, industry and healthcare together constitute a regulated system for managing health and disease. Within this system, researchers can be driven by curiosity, and industry by profit, while doctors want to cure their patients, and research participants want to support research that could lead to more effective treatments.

The point I am trying to make is that the gut reaction probably overlooks just this division of motives: In order for a whole system to work for the good, not every actor in the system needs to place good intentions first. It can rather pose a risk for the entire system.

There is no reason to glorify the pharmaceutical industry. Rather there are reasons to question it, for example, the marketing of products, which sometimes tries to create the faith that is prohibited in the development and approval of the products.

The industry is not altruistic. It is driven by profit. But through its place within the system it can make altruism and good will possible.

Pär Segerdahl

This post in Swedish

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