Universal Healthcare Can Save Money, But Innovation Is Key: My Experiences in Japan and the U.S.

8/10/09

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that of the United States.

There is another important contrast in Japan: the institutional approach to healthcare can make innovation and the discovery of breakthrough treatments even more difficult. In the U.S., companies are known for and our industry’s success is driven by an indomitable entrepreneurial spirit. Pharma and biotech leaders strike out on their own and start up new companies to spur growth, explore new technologies and build innovative pipelines focused on cutting-edge (and largely untested) research. This is often not the case in Japan where the corporate culture tends to retain top talent within its hierarchical structure, as opposed to ‘spinning out’ these minds to create the next generation of companies. There are companies in Japan that are innovating, though—for example, Otsuka, one of Japan’s largest pharmaceutical companies has partnered with Acucela, the Bothell, WA-based company I founded in 2002, and together we are working to develop novel, first-in-class treatments for blinding eye disease.

With health care reform pending in Washington, D.C., I think it will be critical that we strike the right balance of providing an institutional structure that provides baseline coverage for everyone in the country while not sacrificing our high quality care. It is also essential to address how any shift in the focus of our current health care system could affect the research, drive and innovation that leads to medical breakthroughs. These innovations are the cornerstone of our industry’s entrepreneurial culture and have the potential to greatly improve the nation’s health and quality of life.

We must keep innovation at the forefront of our minds and our strategies through any health care reform process. To be sure, access to quality health care is critical and a top priority for our country, but we must also remember that our unique American spirit of exploration and entrepreneurship feeds the global need for medical breakthroughs and creates a wealth of effective treatments for all the citizens of the world. We must examine closely solutions that could dampen that spirit or institutionalize innovation – they are assets.

Ryo Kubota is chairman, president and CEO of Seattle-based Acucela. Follow @

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  • Ryan McBride

    Thank you for the insights, Ryo. I hope our policymakers are reading this, because it’s so important that we get this healthcare reform done the right way.

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  • Gerry Roe

    My son spent 3 years working in Japan after a year in school there. He never experienced 3-hour waits or noticeably less time with the doctor than he gets here. If by “out of pocket” you include taxes paid to cover health care, then perhaps the costs in the two countries are not that different for some income levels, but what he paid outside of that was a pittance. Meanwhile, my daughter, who is unemployed and uninsured, was hit with a $10,000 bill for a couple of hours in the ER with no major procedures. In other words, our treatment costs constitute a much higher percentage of income for the poor. I defer your judgement with regard to quality of care, but I’m not sure you’ve identified cause and effect when you suggest that the entrepreneurial spirit in the US is a result of our approach to health insurance. It may as well be a result of other cultural factors, which evidently shape corporations differently in Japan. Would you be much less likely to pursue your research if it only made you comfortable, not wealthy? Wouldn’t more people be likely to take entrepreneurial risks if they weren’t literally gambling with their lives?