Over the decades, hospital visits and medications have become more and more expensive for the average American. This problem has become such a dilemma for the United States that people often cannot pay for their life-saving medication and affordable healthcare is a hot-button issue for presidential administrations. While insurance companies, lack of regulation over medication prices, etc., all contribute to this issue, there is another problem: the existence of medical patents that contribute to a rise in medication costs. Beyond money, patents have raised several other issues within the medical community.
What is a patent? Patents are a form of intellectual property rights, which are often treated similarly to other property rights. 35 USC Section 101, also known as the patent-eligibility doctrine, states that “any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof” may be eligible for a patent. Patents for one’s invention or discovery protect the idea; they grant the patent-holder exclusive rights over their invention. For example, suppose a doctor discovers a new combination of synthetic compounds and living organisms that creates a treatment for cancer; if they patent this new discovery, the doctor is able to prevent anyone who tries to market or sell the product without their permission.
Patents and the medical field have a long history with each other. This relationship may seem straightforward and mutually beneficial; however, there have been controversial patents within the medical field and controversies related to the effects patents have on the medical field. Should inventors be able to exclude others from distributing medical treatments? Should medical treatments be guarded when doing so may negatively affect the health of others?
On one hand, patents help promote innovation. Consider the earlier example of the doctor inventing a new treatment for cancer: if the doctor knew they would not be able to patent their work at all, what incentive would they have to invent the treatment in the first place? Patents guarantee that inventors are rewarded for their hard work and are the only ones able to benefit from their medical discovery. Medical treatments can take billions of dollars and decades to develop. Incentivizing medical companies and scientists to create these treatments is part of the reason why we have life-saving medications for numerous illnesses today.
However, there are several arguments against allowing medical treatments to be patentable. Generic drug companies argue that brand-name companies have weaponized the patent system by slightly changing molecules to extend their monopolies, thereby increasing their profits at the expense of those buying the medication. Further, studies have shown that the modern patent system discourages companies from investing in preventive or curative drugs, such as vaccines or antibiotics; these are still important drugs that should be developed. There is also the morality perspective: shouldn’t our society prioritize affordable medical care? Why should we even consider company profits and promoting innovation when insulin is hundreds of dollars more expensive in the United States than other countries?
There is no simple solution to this issue. Scientists need to be motivated to invent the next medical breakthrough, but the current system needs to change for affordable medical treatments to be a realistic possibility for the next generation. Perhaps altering the patent system is the way to accomplish this goal.
Suggested Citation: Saron Araya, Should Medical Treatments be Patented?, Cornell J.L. & Pub. Pol’y, The Issue Spotter (October 19, 2023), http://jlpp.org/blogzine/should-medical-treatments-be-patented/.