A Public Health Stranger in the Land of Medical Care
Monday, September 28, 2009
What we really need is health reform, not just health insurance reform.
Interesting, exciting, confusing, frustrating, and disappointing are just few of the more generous terms I can use to describe the current state of what is being called the “health reform” debate in the U.S.
I pose a few basic questions and respond based on what the likely outcome appears to be: an private insurance-based system with no “public option”.
Is it really “health reform”?
Hardly. Let’s call it “health insurance reform.” It’s about removing one major barrier for those without health insurance: money. However, providers of care – hospitals, physicians, and others- do not have to accept whatever payment system will be in place. So access may still be limited. For example, in the Ithaca area where I live only about half the physicians are currently accepting new Medicare and Medicaid patients. Will they accept new patients in the future?
Health insurance reform will not likely diminish the inequalities that exist due to factors such as race, gender, sexual preference, geography, education, and social status.
What would “health” reform look like?
There are two ways to answer this.
First, we would have to change the mechanism and culture of medical care. A “health” system that focuses on keeping people healthy instead of rewarding the treatment of the ill would prevent problems and likely save an enormous amount of money over the long run. Initial investments in changing our system will be costly, but will be worth it.
For example, we pay cardiologists in the thousand of dollars for performing 60 minute procedures in their offices or outpatient clinics. However, we pay them much much less for spending 60 minutes with their patients discussing ways to improve or maintain their health status such a nutrition, stress reduction, and physical activity. What do you think most doctors decide to do?
Second, let us consider the areas know as the social determinants of health.
We know that “health” is far more than access to medical treatment. Consider the “choices” one has for purchasing healthy food on a low fixed income, for example. What food stores are available in their neighborhood? What parks or recreation opportunities are available? Is their neighborhood safe? Therefore, “health” reform means doing something to increase and improve the choices one has where they live.
Here are other social determinants of health:
race, education, housing, employment and occupation, and stress. We rarely consider these when discussing “health insurance reform.”
So we need to change the terms of the debate.
If the goal of reform is to improve health status for as many people as possible, then removing financial barriers to care is only one way. Investing in better housing, wider access to education (not just health education), healthier neighborhoods, food policies with consumer health as a priority, healthier workplaces, and acknowledgement of racial inequalities in health would mean real health reform.
Here are a few sources to check out:
Reaching for a Healthier Life: Facts on Socioeconomic Status and Health in the U.S. (This is a clear and concise explanation of the social determinants of health.)
Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick?
(This video series and website offer many examples of what makes the U.S. sick and healthy. An excellent resource with data, podcasts, video clips, and interviews.)www.unnaturalcauses.org/