Around 18,000 Americans injure their spinal cord every year. A few recover fully. Most experience some type of continuing health problem. Some never walk again. As a spinal injury specialist, few things are more depressing to me. Worse, most of these injuries are entirely preventable.
Here are a few more facts you might not be aware of regarding victims of spinal cord injuries:
- They’re two to five times as likely to die prematurely than someone without a spinal cord injury
- They’re less likely to enroll in school or remain in the workforce
- The majority have chronic pain for the rest of their lives
These injuries are common (around 400,000 people worldwide injure their spinal cords every year). They’re also debilitating, preventable, and responsible for tremendous economic costs. This might lead you to believe they’re being well-researched. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
There is ongoing research, but funding is limited. In 2016, for example, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services reported that $71 million was spent on spinal cord injury research. That sounds like a lot until you actually know the costs associated with researching novel treatments and bringing them into the healthcare market.
The average cost of researching, developing, and producing a new drug is estimated to be anywhere between $500 million and $2.5 billion. It’s understandable, then, that tens of billions are poured into research for cancer and Alzheimer’s treatments annually, and how a single organization like the National Cancer Institute can spend $5 billion on cancer research every year.
Compared to those numbers, $71 million suddenly doesn’t seem like all that much. Admittedly, cancer and Alzheimer’s both affect a larger number of people than spinal cord injuries, but as a doctor in the field, it’s disheartening to note how little attention it receives.
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The bright side
Due to advances in research and medical technology, incomplete spinal cord injuries (where patients don’t lose all feeling or mobility) are becoming more common than complete spinal cord injuries (in which patients lose all feeling and mobility).
Encouragingly, much of the progress that has already been made in those categories hasn’t been the result of huge investments in research and development, but instead due to relatively simple innovations. When it comes to spinal injury care, this is also where the future of progress lies.
From designing artificial discs, to reducing surgeon error with video technology, to simply giving spinal injury patients an interactive, informational iPad application to help guide them in recovery, innovation is how spinal care can move forward — and it doesn’t have to involve massive amounts of capital or reinventing the wheel.
Engineering, invention, and innovation doesn’t require billions of dollars of investment, and it’s where those things collide with medicine that revolutionary new modes of healthcare typically emerge. In order for spinal care patients to enjoy better outcomes, we need innovators to adopt a medical mindset — and we need healthcare professionals to adopt an innovation mindset.
Improvement in the field of spinal injury would obviously benefit from a giant influx of funding. However, it would also greatly benefit from physicians and medical management professionals being willing to think outside the box. With over half of spinal injury victims never achieving full recovery, patients desperately need — and deserve — better than the status quo when it comes to care.