TCS Daily

Knowledge is Health

By Carlo Stagnaro - October 18, 2004 12:00 AM

You might think everybody in the West enjoys the right to free speech. But this is not necessarily true. At least in Europe.

If you are an executive of a research-based pharmaceutical company and want to pass along information to patients about treating what ails them, you either have to shut up or go to jail. An EU-wide law prohibits pharmaceutical advertising while at the same time allowing herbalists and makers of margarine to hawk the cholesterol-lowering benefits of their products. Paradoxically, the more scientific-based your information, the harder is to communicate it to the general public.

Thanks to the Internet, accessing such information is much easier than in the past. But in Europe, where the Internet is less pervasive than in other parts of the developed world, the freedom to access vital information about diseases is far from a reality. Eurobarometer data show that 57 percent of Europeans don't have an Internet connection and the elderly comprise the vast majority of those on the other side of the digital divide.

Rationing and restricting information does not just deny one of the fundamental pillars in a free society. In the case of Europe, it diminishes the quality of health. A executive at Merck, a large pharmaceutical firm, warned against the perverse effects of the process in a recent article published in The Wall Street Journal. Many Europeans die or suffer needlessly because, amid their state-controlled health care systems, they are simply unaware of newer medicines that might better treat their condition, wrote Per Wold Olsen.

"European laws," he wrote, "help keep European consumers ignorant of health-care developments. As a result, many in Europe suffer or die needlessly from a simple lack of information."

For example, more than 12 million women in Europe suffer from osteoporosis. This illness is not without remedy. In fact, five years ago a medicine was developed that might help substantially reduce the risk of debilitating fractures as a consequence of osteoporosis. Unfortunately, only 2.5 million women know this; the remaining ones live a less healthy life because they simply are not allowed to know anything about it.

Why don't people get information from doctors? After all, the more information, the better. This is a general truth, but it is also valid for health care. But doctors may be inadequate to inform patients for both direct and indirect reasons. They spend most of their time trying to reduce waiting lines; they have little time to inform themselves about new medicines. Plus, with healthcare predominantly in public hands in Europe, doctors may be subject to political pressures aimed at cutting, or containing, expenses.

Patients -- i.e., consumers -- are deeply harmed by such a system. Informed patients can also make the right decision; as far as healthcare is concerned, "making the right decision" means staying healthier. There is a widely recognized correlation between health and wealth: healthy people are more productive from an economic point of view.

Even the EU admits that much. The Lisbon Agenda, which aims to make Europe "the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world" by 2010, the EU recognizes "the strategic importance of full exploitation of new information technologies in the public administration of health, for the benefit of the citizen as a consumer of both health-care services and health information."

With the appointment of José Barroso to replace Romano Prodi as the head of European Commission, things may be changing. In fact, Barroso defined freedom as the first political priority of the new administration.

Patient information regulation may be a kind of litmus paper to test his sincerity. If companies are permitted to inform patients about their products, the former get richer (therefore more willing to engage in new research areas), and the latter are freer and healthier. All are better off. Only bureaucratic power would decrease, which is a kind of positive side effect.


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