The Downsides of Limited Intellectual Property in Psychiatric Care

As a software entrepreneur, intellectual property is a fact of life for me, like death and taxes. Between patents and DMCA protection, free software and licensing, it often feels like software is handicapped by the amount of intellectual property protection available and the ways it is applied. Innovation spreads naturally in software, and patents hinder it more often than they help. Traditional copyright is sufficient for enforcing basic software licensing, and even that may be too restrictive if the goal is to maximize innovation.

But not everything is software. A few weeks ago John Weisz of the Judge Baker Children’s Center at Harvard gave a talk at our church about his group and the work that they do. It’s a great organization, with the mission to improve psychiatric care for children. They do this in many ways, such as running the Child At-Risk Hotline for Massachusetts, operating a school for children with psychiatric challenges, teaching Harvard students, running summer programs for kids with problems, and funding various studies of children’s psychiatric care.

The studies lead to an interesting if depressing problem. Because the Judge Baker center does some of the best research in the topic, they often know exactly what treatments work for children and which do not. But there is no good way for them to spread this information out into the world.

Unlike software developers (at least the software developers I know), most psychiatrists aren’t able or inclined to reach research papers and form their own conclusions about the state of the art in their profession. Rather, they are overworked, underpaid, and have no money for professional continuing education.

Normally in medicine this problem is solved by drug companies. They have an incentive to teach doctors about their new drug or device. They will get paid by patients in the end, if they can convince the doctor that their treatment is worth prescribing. So they produce not only research, but also continuing education programs, often hosted as part of lavish vacations. They give away pens with their name on it, send reps in regularly to talk about new systems or treatments. They even do television commercials, educating consumers directly. And the whole process is kept relatively honest by FDA oversight.

Psychicatric care, at least the kind that doesn’t involve drugs, is missing both sides of this equation. There is no FDA analog, forcing rigor in research about treatments and setting acceptable practice. And there are no drug companies, developing new techniques and spending the money to inform practitioners.

The reason for this, at it’s heart, is the lack of intellectual property protection for psychiatric treatment techniques. There is no way for a developer of new techniques to capture the value that other people, providers and patients, get from their new techniques. And as a result there is no incentive to push those techniques out into the world, to market them and train providers in them, to measure their effectiveness and get articles written in parenting magazines.

In software, it often seems like we have too much intellectual property protection. It’s interesting to hear about a discipline with too little.

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