How can we ensure future gains in health are widely distributed?

Biomedical science and new technologies promise extraordinary advances in the treatment of disease. They must be made available to all

December 07, 2022
© Illustration by Ian Morris
© Illustration by Ian Morris

Advances in medical science promise new leaps forward in human health and longevity. But how widely will these benefits be shared? The potential of technological innovation is dazzling, but a policy focus on the wider determinants of health is likely to prove as, if not more, important in shaping the quality of life of our population. 

When Covid-19 struck, medical science took centre stage: new technologies enabled the rapid sequencing of millions of cases, while pioneering RNA research facilitated the creation of new vaccines. Similarly impressive developments are now becoming commonplace across a range of frontiers. Some notable breakthroughs in the last few years include the AI-based AlphaFold protein database (which should equip life science researchers with powerful tools for understanding disease and drug discovery) and brain-computer interfaces (which could have a range of applications, including for those recovering from spinal injuries).

The UK’s life science industry is well-positioned to be an important economic asset in the years ahead. Last year the sector attracted £4.5bn of investment, compared to just £261m in 2012. The research and development potential is considerable if the UK can successfully combine the strengths of its universities with the unique opportunities for clinical trials and data collection afforded by a centralised health system like the NHS.

Yet scientific innovation and “MedTech” alone will not deliver better health and longer lives, as uneven access to the benefits of any new breakthrough could serve to simply entrench health inequalities over time. In practice cutting-edge treatments could prove costly. The NHS may struggle to meet demand alongside continuing to invest in preventative healthcare. Policymakers have long struggled to find effective levers to tackle the wider social and environmental causes of disease, as the long-term effects of factors—like air pollution—are often hidden from view.

If medical science holds out the promise of rapid innovations in the treatment of disease and extension of healthy life, how might we ensure these benefits are widely distributed? Among the ideas for the minister’s attention here is James Kirkland’s proposal for an international Cern-like institution to power scientific discoveries on age-related diseases. Off the back of the pivotal work in mapping the human genome, Tina Woods argues we now need to map the so-called “exposome” which tracks the environmental causes of disease. Finally, and perhaps most ambitiously, Sally Davies offers up a vision for a National Health Bank focused on preventative measures to safeguard the nation’s most vital asset—the health of its population.

This article first appeared in Minister for the future, a special report produced in association with Nesta.