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The Five Biggest Bioethical Issues of the Next Five Years

As the fields of healthcare and biotechnology rapidly advance, ethical issues have increased just as quickly. Taking a look ahead, Dr. Robert Klitzman, Academic Director of the Master of Science in Bioethics program, predicts the five biggest bioethical issues of the next five years.

1. Providing a minimal level of healthcare to all individuals and reducing health disparities in the United States.

Life expectancy and other health issues vary greatly by race, sex, socioeconomic status, and geographic location. Within the past 50 years, the U.S. has made significant progress in addressing this issue. Life expectancy rose from 70 to 79 years between 1960 to 2011. However, this upward trend is not increasing fast enough and is not equally experienced by everyone. The U.S. is falling behind compared to other countries. White Americans have a longer life expectancy than black Americans, and women live longer than men. There are also regional differences, with white and black Americans living in the Southeast experiencing a lower life expectancy.

2. Providing a minimal level of healthcare and reducing health disparities globally.

The average global life expectancy has increased by 20 years within the past five decades, but underdeveloped countries have been left behind, and there is a lack of a moral framework for dealing with this issue. Global and national actors are morally responsible for achieving common goals that will address this global health disparity. It stretches beyond a health issue; it is also a global peace issue, a global security issue, and an economic issue. For example, if epidemics are raging out of control in parts of Africa, that could lead to international political instability, economic instability, and so on.

3. Addressing the ethical, legal, and social questions posed by new gene editing technologies.

One of the greatest genetic technologies discovered is the CRISPR-Cas 9, a tool that can alter the DNA in our cells. The procedure involves clipping out bad genes in cells or inserting better ones. But there are risks. Specific genes that may increase the likelihood of one disease can protect you against other illnesses, meaning removal of such genes does not eliminate all changes of getting a disease. Moreover, gene editing could also lead to mistakes, such as snipping parts of the wrong gene and risking further health damages.

4. Addressing rising ethical, legal, and social challenges posed by AI and big data.

Complex AI systems and big data analysis are becoming the norm for corporations. Employees should understand the potential ethical risk of algorithms and network monitoring, the use of a system to monitor a network for slow or failing components. During this process, any data that is digested is usually hidden from view, which places data transparency and privacy into question.

5. Reducing the extreme costs of certain pharmaceutical products.

Many pharmaceutical companies have been raising the price of their drugs. For example, Nostrum Pharmaceuticals recently quadrupled the price of nitrofurantoin, used to treat bladder infections, from about $500 to more than $2,300 a bottle. Such price hikes are unethical for several reasons. Although drug companies may expect reasonable return on their investment in research and development, the development of new drugs depends on taxpayer money and sacrifices that patients in studies make in good faith. In addition, excessive price increases can harm people, threatening public health and depleting taxpayer money that could be better used in other ways.

Learn more about the Master of Science in Bioethics program at Columbia University’s School of Professional Studies.