Sunday, December 4, 2011

Our Dysfunctional Healthcare System Up Close And Personal

To really appreciate how inefficient, ineffective, and ultimately cruel the U.S. healthcare system is, you have to experience its deficiencies firsthand. Unfortunately, someone close to me has been suffering mysterious and debilitating ailments for the past couple of months. The person is in the prime of life, but has been forced to quit working and life has lost much of its normal enjoyment.

I had my first hint of how bad the system is when we went to a gastroenterologist who joked during the visit how hard some ailments are to diagnose, and suggested seeing a psychiatrist since Western medicine had little to offer. This came in response to complaints of severe nausea and stomach pains, and the doctor was the head of this particular clinic.

As I accompanied my friend from doctor to doctor, I noticed the lack of coordination and the requirement for the same paper forms with each visit. The doctors all had their pet theories and ordered redundant tests, including the head of the GI clinic at one of the most prestigious hospitals in the country. They recommended all sorts of expensive tests, including an endoscopy and abdominal and head CAT scans, before anything else. All came back negative.

It wasn’t until visiting a naturopathic doctor that my friend finally starting getting information that seemed more reasonable and hopeful. The doctor ordered detailed allergen tests and blood and stool work to try to get to the root cause of the problem. These showed an intolerance to gluten, dairy, and pecans (of all things), as well as some adrenal issues and imbalances in intestinal flora. The naturopath recommended a regimen of supplements, avoiding all intolerant foods, and meditation to decrease stress. It’s only been two weeks since these changes have been made, but the signs are promising and my friend is starting to feel better. We can only hope that a full recovery is underway.

The lessons from this experience have big implications for healthcare policy (and more importantly, people’s health). For starters, our system is entirely backwards. People are given the most invasive and expensive tests first. And sadly, even doctors from the top medical schools lack any training in diet and nutrition, which are the root cause of so many ailments.

I can’t tell you how many stories I have heard from friends in the “alternative” medical community (including dieticians, naturopaths, acupuncturists, and physical therapists) whose patients had been suffering for years (or even decades) with easily treatable conditions that dozens of Western-trained doctors were unable to identify. The resulting human misery, as well as the costs, are staggering; no wonder Americans spend nearly twice as much per capita on healthcare as other developed nations, and obtain worse outcomes. I can only imagine how many millions of Americans are out there, unaware of the alternatives, continuing to suffer and wasting untold thousands of dollars.

My friend was lucky enough to have excellent health insurance. Ten of millions of Americans have none, and find themselves adrift in a world of even more suffering, anxiety, and financial hardship. It is simply unacceptable, especially for a country as great as the United States.

Fortunately, things are changing for the better. Once it’s fully implemented in 2014 Obama’s healthcare law covers more than 30 millions of those currently uninsured (even though tying health insurance to employment, as the system currently is constructed, makes little sense in the 21st Century workforce). In addition, major headway is being made on creating electronic medical records and expanding the role of technology to both decrease inefficiencies and empower individuals to take control of their own health. And as more and more people seek and find relief with alternative medical techniques (most of which are cheaper, safer, and have myriad co-benefits), mainstream Western medicine will be forced to change. Assisted by the internet and social media, Americans will no longer be forced into a system that focuses on disease management instead of on health and wellness promotion. There are many brilliant, caring, and dedicated students, enrolled in the top schools, who deserve an education (and ultimately a healthcare system) that allows them to devote their talents to far better things than simply prescribing expensive tests and working for a system that ultimately puts profit over people.

Those who claim that the American healthcare system is the best in the world are either blindingly ignorant or shills for the insurance and drug industries and medical providers. Our system is broken, and fixing it is the greatest challenge we face. Failure will lead to deficits that dwarf any we have ever experienced, and the moral consequences are even worse; needless suffering that simply unconscionable.

Jason Scorse

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