DAVID AGUS, professor of medicine and engineering, Keck School of USC.
This op-ed originally appeared in the New York Times on Dec. 11.
The inexorable rise in health care spending, as all of us know, is a problem. But what’s truly infuriating, as we watch America’s medical bill soar, is that our conversation has focused almost exclusively on how to pay for that care, not on reducing our need for it. In the endless debate about “health care reform,” few have zeroed in on the practical actions we should be taking now to make Americans healthier.
An exception is Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York, who is setting new standards that we would do well to adopt as a nation. In the last several years, he’s changed the city’s health code to mandate restrictions on sodas and trans fats — products that, when consumed over the long term, harm people. These new rules will undoubtedly improve New Yorkers’ health in years to come.
Such bold moves prompt a provocative question: when does regulating a person’s habits in the name of good health become our moral and social duty? The answer, I suggest, is a two-parter: first, when the scientific data clearly and overwhelmingly demonstrate that one behavior or another can substantially reduce — or, conversely, raise — a person’s risk of disease; and second, when all of us are stuck paying for one another’s medical bills (which is what we do now, by way of Medicare, Medicaid and other taxpayer-financed health care programs).
In such cases, encouraging a healthy behavior, or discouraging an unhealthy one, ought to be a matter of public policy — which is why, for instance, we insist on vaccinating children for the measles, mumps, rubella and polio; we know these preventive strategies save lives.
Under that rationale, then, why not make it public policy to encourage middle-aged people to use aspirin?
Developed in 1897 by the German chemist Felix Hoffmann, aspirin, or acetylsalicylic acid, has long proved its value as an analgesic. Two millenniums before that, Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, used its active ingredient — which he extracted from the bark and leaves of the willow tree — to help alleviate pain and fevers.
Since then, we’ve gained insight into both the biological mechanism and the effects of this chemical compound. Many high-quality research studies have confirmed that the use of aspirin substantially reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease. Indeed, the evidence for this is so abundant and clear that, in 2009, the United States Preventive Services Task Force strongly recommended that men ages 45 to 79, and women ages 55 to 79, take a low-dose aspirin pill daily, with the exception for those who are already at higher risk for gastrointestinal bleeding or who have certain other health issues. (As an anticoagulant, aspirin can increase the risk of bleeding — a serious and potentially deadly issue for some people.)
New reports about aspirin’s benefits in cancer prevention are just as convincing. In 2011, British researchers, analyzing data from some 25,000 patients in eight long-term studies, found that a small, 75-milligram dose of aspirin taken daily for at least five years reduced the risk of dying from common cancers by 21 percent.
In March, The Lancet published two more papers bolstering the case for this ancient drug. The first, reviewing five long-term studies involving more than 17,000 patients, found that a daily low-dose aspirin lowered the risk of getting adenocarcinomas — common malignant cancers that develop in the lungs, colon and prostate — by an average of 46 percent.
In the second, researchers at Oxford and other centers compared patients who took aspirin with those who didn’t in 51 different studies. Investigators found that the risk of dying from cancer was 37 percent lower among those taking aspirin for at least five years. In a subsection of the study group, three years of daily aspirin use reduced the risk of developing cancer by almost 25 percent when compared with the aspirin-free control group.
So the question remains: given the evidence we have, why is it merely voluntary for physicians to inform their patients about a health care intervention that could not only help them, but also save untold billions in taxpayer dollars each year?
For some men over the age of 45 and women over 55, the risks of taking aspirin outweigh any benefits — and patients should talk with their doctors before taking any medication, including something as familiar as aspirin.
But with such caveats in place, it still ought to be possible to encourage aspirin’s use in those for whom the potential benefits would be obvious and the risks minimal. Just as we discourage smoking through advertising campaigns, for example, shouldn’t we suggest that middle-aged Americans speak to their doctors about aspirin? Perhaps pharmacists or even health insurance companies should be enlisted to help spread the word about this disease-prevention drug?
The right policy will have to be hammered out, of course. But if we’re going to address the country’s sky-high medical bill, we’re going to have to address the need for Americans to be active in protecting their own health.
Everyone may want the right to use tobacco products and engage in other behaviors that are unequivocally linked with disease — or have the right not to wear a seat belt and refrain from other actions that may protect their well-being. But, if so, should society have the obligation to cover the costs of the consequences?
As the former Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart once said, “There is a big difference between what we have the right to do and what is right to do.” Health care reform should, at long last, focus on the latter.