Is medical physics worth the cost?

While we spend a lot of money on treating the ill, preventative measures often get ignored. Photo / Hawkes Bay Today
While we spend a lot of money on treating the ill, preventative measures often get ignored. Photo / Hawkes Bay Today

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I've often talked about how great medical physics is. The MRI scanner, for example, contains some fantastic physics - interaction of atomic nuclei with magnetic fields (which you need quantum mechanics to explain properly) - and is supported by clever mathematics too. And the PET scanner uses anti-matter (specifically anti-electrons from beta plus decay) to help map out your insides. But this technology, and its support staff, doesn't come cheap.

I was fascinated by Gareth Morgan's article in the Herald about the cost of healthcare. Why is it that healthcare costs seem to go up and up, even faster than my rates bills?

Part of the answer, I think, is technology. There is a whole lot more that can be done for a sick person now, than 20, 50 or 200 years ago. And the view that people "deserve the best treatment possible" means that it is seen as reasonable to pay these costs.

If you want to earn big money with a physics degree there are two choices: The first is to go into banking and insurance and work the derivatives markets (this one has got a little risky in the last couple of years), and the second is to train as a medical physicist. It's hard to see that there will be an oversupply of them in the next few years.

But is it really reasonable to pay these costs and employ these physicists? (Am I really saying this?) Gareth points out that a huge amount of money is spent on trying to treat sick people, when we are particularly poor at making sure we (I mean the whole population) don't become sick in the first place. Junk food, alcohol, poor quality housing, lack of exercise - most of these things are cheap to fix, but require a major change in mindset to do them.

I've often wondered if the health boards here would save money in the long run AND achieve better health outcomes if they spent part of their budgets on insulating people's homes. Of course they won't, because it's not what a health budget is seen as, but it might be a better use of their money.

Finally, a story that is terribly close to my heart. Last April, my father was shovelled through various high-technology tests, including CT and MRI, at I imagine a reasonable cost to his insurers and the UK National Health service, in an attempt to diagnose his pain. The technology, unfortunately, could do no more for him than to tell him he was dying of pancreatic cancer. Two weeks after his diagnosis, he was dead. In contrast, his last two days in St Catherine's hospice 'achieved' far more - no scans, no operations, no tremendously high technology (though I did think the bed was pretty clever) just some very dedicated nursing care.

Dr Marcus Wilson is a lecturer in the Engineering Department at Waikato University. View his work and that of 30 other scientists and science writers at Sciblogs, New Zealand's largest science blogging network.

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