Health Care’s Broken: Allow the Free Market to Fix It

We may all pay a tremendous price: a loss of personal freedom and better health. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

From the moment we take our first breaths, we’re knee-deep in a world of regulations and restrictions.

Some regulations are positive: The prohibition of murder, fraud, and theft come to mind. Others aren’t quite as beneficial — even if they are masked as solutions. These are the worst types of regulations because they imply anything outside the norm must be terrible.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the stagnant U.S. health care system. Endless regulations prohibit anything but standard medical procedures — also called “best practices.” Procedures that fall outside these regulations are deemed dangerous, and professionals who dare to stray outside the boundaries are subject to sanctions and lawsuits.

This means enterprising minds cannot draft or attempt new scientific discoveries, which give birth to innovative medical treatments. Experimentation is quashed, medicine stagnates, and we all pay a tremendous price: a loss of personal freedom and better health.

Health care Must Embrace an Experimental Mindset

You might not be familiar with Ignaz Semmelweis, but you likely wouldn’t be alive were it not for this Hungarian doctor’s ingenuity.

Less than 200 years ago, Semmelweis discovered that midwives who washed their hands in chlorinated lime solutions led to reduced rates of puerperal fever (more commonly known as childbed fever). While Semmelweis wasn’t heralded for his discovery of disinfection until much later — he lost his job and eventually ended up in a mental asylum — his revolutionary approach to hospital hygiene saved countless lives.

If he were alive today, Semmelweis would never have been able to test his theories because of ubiquitous regulations. Most treatments, procedures, and pharmaceuticals are heavily regulated, with our government controlling the types of cures available as well as how they can be administered.

This might seem reasonable on the surface — proper medical licensing helps ensure not just anyone can practice medicine — but this limitation ends up holding back innovative, skeptical, and curious individuals. There is a depressing lack of innovation in the medical industry, which explains why the U.S. spends more than $9,200 annually per person yet doesn’t crack the top 10 list of the best countries for health care.

The government dictates what is permitted within a narrow spectrum of actions, and woe be to anyone who tries to think outside the box. This ends up lowering competition in the medical field and destroys the desire to create better ways of tackling problems. Without any variation, doctors are left to stagnate.

Sadly, patients pay the biggest price for this atrophy of discovery. The government has effectively created a bureaucratic system in which everyone but the patient is safe as long as doctors follow set procedures. When doctors could lose their ability to practice for bucking the rules, it makes sense that they stick with what’s safe in terms of liability. Hospitals and medical centers follow suit to avoid liability risks, and insurance providers will only cover standard treatments offered by recognized hospitals and carried out by licensed providers.

It’s one massive bubble, and no one escapes. The Semmelweises of tomorrow are marginalized, ridiculed, and literally outlawed. Unless something changes, their innovative ideas will never see the light of day.

Bringing Trial and Error Into Medicine

Remember when everyone called chiropractors scam artists and fringe practitioners? Their treatments are now widely accepted — even insurance companies will cover them — for conditions medical doctors are unable to remedy.

Chiropractors are undoubtedly relieved to have moved beyond the humbug, but plenty of other alternative-medicine practitioners are not so fortunate. They’re mocked before they get to the starting gate and edged out of the medical playing field before they have a chance to compete.

The concept of “trial and error” might sound frightening when it comes to your health, but it’s necessary to spur learning and improvement. No one wants to feel like Dr. Frankenstein’s latest creation, but most patients are already subject to some level of experimentation.

Medicine is an immensely complex science, and physicians often don’t know exactly why certain treatments work. If they did, there would be no such thing as prescription drug side effects. Plus, we would always get targeted treatments.

Want proof? Think about chemotherapy. It certainly kills cancer cells, but it also kills all other cells. This state-of-the-art treatment is highly untargeted, but it’s the number one treatment for cancer. We might not refer to it this way, but chemotherapy involves quite a bit of trial and error.

Trial and error is at the heart of modern medicine, so why shouldn’t we be able to choose whatever sort of treatment we want? If we have cancer, we should have the freedom to explore experimental treatments. This shift would put pressure on doctors and health care facilities to offer better outcomes instead of focusing on the “safe” approach. Similar to any other marketplace, patients would endorse therapies that work while shunning ineffective treatments.

Market forces put far greater pressure on entrepreneurs than any politician ever could. By letting a “thousand flowers bloom,” we could swiftly climb to the next pinnacle of medical achievement.

Harnessing the Power of Choice

Whether it’s the cars they drive or the cereal they eat, Americans crave choice. Medicine should be no different. Bodies are not standardized, and they require a plethora of options.

If consumers have a greater say in their health, members of the medical field would be forced to find better solutions. Medical professionals might dream of being the person to cure cancer, but they will never explore riskier routes as long as they’re worried about violating rigid regulations. Physicians are rewarded for following orders, so why would they explore better ways to solve age-old ailments?

In a perfect world, a decentralized health care system would facilitate care directly between providers and consumers. This would allow doctors to treat diseases more effectively and cheaply, and true innovators would be free to explore and offer new solutions in an open market.

For this to happen, governments would have to get out of the medicine business for good. Health care insurance decrees would be a thing of the past, eliminating regulations and employee tax deductions along the way. Medical professionals could operate without licenses, and intellectual property regulation would no longer strangle the pharmaceutical world.

Think it’s impossible? This sort of change has already happened in the technology sector. People create, embrace, and adopt technological innovations in a self-regulating environment on a regular basis. From USB peripherals to communication protocols, tech sets its own standards without government oversight. The medical field could enjoy the same perpetual evolution if people would see it as the business that it is.

What will it take for this to happen? People would need to let go of their fear, for starters. The idea of traversing uncharted territory is petrifying, but it’s quite ignorant to assume we already have all the answers.

In the age of Semmelweis, society thought it had reached the peak of human understanding — they still had a lot to learn, and so do we. Humankind will and should know more tomorrow than today, and that extends to the health care sector. Without innovation, we’re condemning innocent people — including ourselves — to needless suffering and death.

Per Bylund is Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurship and Records-Johnston Professor of Free Enterprise in the School of Entrepreneurship at Oklahoma State University. His areas of research are entrepreneurship, management and economic organization. Connect with him on Twitter.