Poverty, Healthcare, and Biohacking

By David Riahi

In the first quarter of 2017, 11.3 percent of adults in the United States did not have health insurance. In addition, the leading cause of bankruptcy in the United States is due to medical expenses. One study indicated that “about 62 percent of personal bankruptcies in 2007 were reportedly due to medical bills, even though most of those people had insurance.”  One last startling statistic is that in 2015, the average cost of hospital visits for cancer patients was approximately $31,390 ─ which is about half of that year’s median household income.

Unfortunately, this may not be a surprise for most of us. Both based off personal experience and the common occurrence of crowdfunding sites to ask for money to cover medical expenses- the costly impact of today’s healthcare system is no secret.

But what do these numbers and figures really mean? How do impoverished populations receive medical treatment, if they do at all? Has there been any way to circumvent the financial impact that health care can cause? While these questions may have broad implications, more recent literature and studies show that the expense of our health care system has created an increase of biohacking.

Biohacking refers to “non-institutional science or science performed outside of professional laboratories.” In fact, biohacking has increased due to the inability for many Americans to afford medical treatment, and also because many people consider our regulatory system to be too slow as compared to the rapid growth of medical innovations. One famous example is the #wearenotwaiting social media movement which was direct at patients who suffer from diabetes. This movement started by a couple who built an artificial pancreas at home, and began to spread their design method and how to use the pancreas on Twitter. The push for this social media movement, and for other so-called “garage solutions”, has been perpetuated by the fact that the solutions can work, and people need it. In fact, in the case of the #wearenotwaiting movement, after being in use for almost two years, the US Food and Drug Administration approved the device.

So, this is great, right? The healthcare system has some flaws, people find a way around the system, and in the end, everyone receives treatment? Well, unfortunately not every biohack turns out as great at the #wearenotwaiting movement. Unsurprisingly, the US Food and Drug Administration utilizes a regulation system in order to ensure that technological advances are safe. So by default, when biohackers engage in the use of unapproved technology, or technology that has not been thoroughly vetted, there can be negative, null, or even fatal results.

But many questions stand from the increase of biohacking. What should we do about it? If people can receive access to 3D printed medication at home, and its more affordable, should we allow them to? Where do we decide that enough is enough, and draw a line between innovation, and reckless experimentation? Should we allow garage solutions to some degree? Does it alleviate some of our healthcare issues? Is there any way to appropriately regulate the system? And lastly, signing a waiver of informed consent ─ acknowledging that you agree and understand the medical treatment you are receiving ─ is a significant aspect of our treatment interactions with doctors, do we assume that people utilizing garage solutions know how to give informed consent, are capable of doing so, and aren’t being pressured?

Although there hasn’t been much discussion in the realm of biohacking, with the average life span age increasing, and the rapid increase of innovation, it is likely that many of these questions will have to soon be answered.

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