Medical research an investment in people’s well-being
It is not every day a film resonates deeply with me, but recent Bollywood release “The Sky Is Pink” takes a bitter lemon slice from real life and turns it into something saccharine and memorable. Based on true events, viewers meet the boisterous Chaudhary family of New Delhi, who discover that their baby girl, Aisha, has severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID). This rare genetic disorder leaves her susceptible to life-threatening infections. Aisha’s parents travel all the way to London so that she can receive a bone marrow transplant at the renowned Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children at just six months old. Aisha was able to live well into her teenage years, until she developed a serious illness called pulmonary fibrosis, which was a side effect of the bone marrow transplant, and she sadly died aged 18. The film portrays the mental, physical and financial tolls of caring for an ill child, who had little hope of living a long, healthy life.
For those who live with a chronic illness or care for a family member with one, we are constantly hoping for new breakthroughs in medical treatment that will allow individuals to live longer, healthier lives. It is, therefore, imperative that we shed light on the importance of funding medical research to support the discovery of treatments for complex illnesses. The returns on medical research investment go beyond saving lives; extending into economic and social returns, enhancing productivity, increasing employment levels, reducing the costly burden of disabilities and illnesses, cutting health care expenses, and boosting well-being levels. Many governments, such as those in France, Germany, Switzerland and the UK, offer universal health care to their populations, and yet the challenge remains on how to offer excellent medical services in the face of increasing populations, the presence of complex diseases, and tight government budgets.
Countries that invest in medical research and development activities have gained tremendous and lasting economic and social benefits. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the US is the largest government funder of biomedical research in the world, devoting more than $30 billion annually to discovering new treatments and preventative solutions, consequently driving economic growth and improving citizens’ health. It boasts an impressive repertoire of achievements and discoveries that have transformed the way we live for the better. Research conducted by the NIH has led to breakthrough treatments for a number of diseases, ultimately helping to increase the average lifespan of Americans by eight years, halving the death rate from all causes, reducing neonatal mortality, preventing and treating heart disease, diabetes and cancer, fighting dangerous infections, treating impaired vision and hearing loss, improving recovery rates from major injuries, and offering a number of treatments for rare diseases. These noble achievements have also spilled over to the economy and wider community. For example, the NIH’s Human Genome Project has resulted in nearly $1 trillion of economic growth. On top of that, the economic gains of increased longevity have been estimated at about $3.2 trillion per year.
Similarly, the UK government and a number of medical research charities have analyzed the potential rates of return of medical research funding. The study proved that medical research yields significant yearly health gains, ranging from 7 to 10 percent, in addition to a boost in economic returns estimated to be more than 15 percent. The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) is a UK government agency responsible for funding medical research. In 2017, it funded 302 pioneering research projects with a budget valued at £227 million ($296 million). Recently, the institute has focused on research relevant to brain tumors, mental health treatment, dementia, maternal care, and palliative care. Findings are rapidly shared in peer-reviewed journals and the National Health Service network to disseminate its value to the professionals and the public. The NIHR has also worked on raising public awareness about the importance of medical research via free online courses, grassroots events and social media.
Countries that invest in medical research and development activities have gained tremendous and lasting economic and social benefits.
The UN expects the Arab region to double in population to about 700 million by the end of the century. With increasing lifespans and rising incidences of physical and mental health conditions, we need to design a sustainable way to improve our health status. By promoting medical research, we can start focusing on prevention as a first step toward improving health care, in addition to advancing medical discoveries that are pertinent to the region. This will also allow us to expand access to medical treatments closer to home, thus reducing health inequalities.
Governments, companies and individuals can make an enduring change in people’s well-being by investing in medical research. Together, we can support the scientists who make the pioneering discoveries that serve to help us live healthier, longer and more fulfilling lives.
- Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and children’s literature.