Business | Analysis

Marvel of medical technology and expertise

Steps finally being taken to make US health care more efficient and accessible

  • By David Lazarus
  • Published: 14:53 November 23, 2012
  • Gulf News

It’s a day late, but I’ll tell you what I’m thankful for. I’m thankful that I’m no longer in the hospital.

Thankful that our health care system, which I’ve criticised pretty heavily, is a marvel of medical technology and expertise.

Thankful that steps are finally being taken to make that system more efficient and accessible to everyone. But there’s clearly much work to be done. I’ll get back to that.

First, let me explain why you haven’t seen my column for a week or so. There will be some who will say I grabbed my cat after he slipped out of the house, and the darn thing bit my hand, causing a painful infection that penetrated deep into my tendons and ligaments.

That strikes me as kind of lame. So I’ll say that I broke up a knife fight. No matter the cause, I found myself last week in a bed at UCLA Medical Centre in Santa Monica with an intravenous drip of antibiotics hooked up to my arm. The fact that I have Type 1 diabetes was a complicating factor.

Surgery was eventually required. And then I had to recover from that.

All in all, it was a lot of fuss for a cat bite — er, knife fight. It was also the first time I’ve been hospitalised since I had my tonsils out as a kid, providing me with a close-up look at our health care system in action.

Actually, that’s a misnomer, one that’s muddied the debate in this country over health care reform. We have two systems — a medical system and an insurance system. They’re intertwined, and any decision affecting one inevitably affects the other. The reality is that our medical system is extraordinary, and extraordinarily expensive. Our insurance system, meanwhile, is a model of inefficiency and misplaced priorities (profits over patients). Reform on both fronts is necessary.

But I’ll be the first to say how lucky we are to have a medical system with the resources and know-how to handle nearly any problem. And can we pause for a minute to sing the praises of nurses? They’re the front line of our medical system, the foot soldiers who deliver the bulk of the care that makes us well. They work epic hours and are the ones who can make or break a patient’s hospital experience.

My nurses at UCLA Medical Centre were uniformly great. To cite just one example, Gerri Thompson consistently went the extra mile to ensure that I was as well as could be, while at the same time teaching a nursing student how to do the job.

Thompson has about 20 years of experience as a nurse and works a lot harder than I do for a lot less money. And I work for a newspaper, which isn’t exactly what you’d call a major profit centre these days.

According to the Bureau of Labour Statistics, the median annual wage for a registered nurse was $64,690 in 2010. That’s one reason we’re projected to face a severe shortage of nurses in coming years just as the baby boomers increasingly swamp the medical care system.

Which raises another point. I’ve now seen firsthand how our hospitals are called upon to double as nursing homes for seniors. In some cases, an ailing senior may spend well over a month in a hospital bed, placing exceptional demands on attending nurses and physicians.

While I’m at it, let me say a word or two about personal responsibility. Conservatives are fond of saying that high insurance deductibles are a great way to make people better consumers of health care. If more of your own money is on the line, the thinking goes, you’ll make more practical decisions about how much medical treatment you need. This is an asinine argument.

Take it from me, when your own well-being is at stake, you don’t think twice when your doctor says, for instance, that you need an MRI. Cost isn’t a factor at that point. In my case, I was fighting for the continued use of my hand. I’m a fairly adept consumer. I shop around for the best deals. I don’t buy things if I don’t have the money. But I have only two hands, and I wasn’t about to possibly sacrifice one of them for the sake of saving a buck. With health care, you have to trust the experts. These are decisions that are beyond the capabilities of most people. High deductibles don’t make us better health care consumers. They make us poorer consumers, and that’s “poorer” in the sense of having a lot less money.

Our medical system is remarkable, but it needs to change. The emphasis should be on keeping us well, rather than fixing us when we’re sick. But all the financial incentives at the moment are on dealing with problems after they arise. Our insurance system, obviously, is a mess. About 50 million people in this country lack coverage. And for many who do have insurance, they don’t have enough coverage.

I’ll write about my hospital bill after it arrives. I can’t wait to see what I was charged for six nights of care, not to mention the operation, the anesthesia, the antibiotics, the pills.

For the moment, I just want to say thanks. Thanks to all the doctors and nurses who got me through this thing. Thanks, too, to the insurance company that, as far as I know, didn’t throw any roadblocks in the way of my treatment.

I typed this column with both my hands. I’m very grateful for that.

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