Modern medicine spends inordinate amounts to accomplish relatively little in improving most people's lives. Yes, there are spectacular stories of medical successes, but they are only one in a million to a hundred at best. They have relatively little impact on the majority's overall health. For all of the health care dollars spent, the United States is behind forty other countries in life expectancy. Since we spend more than other countries on health care, what are we getting for all of these health care dollars?
Even countries that were recently considered third world countries have life expectancies that match or exceed that of ours if we ignore the higher death rates due to the early childhood diseases. Also, there are other countries that spend only a fraction as much as we do, but have life expectancies that are better than ours. This suggests that we are not paying for the health care that we think we are.
Health care is a misnomer, it is really sick care. We continue to spend more and more to save the few very ill patients or to give dying patients a few extra days in an intensive care unit. These dollars spent on sick care consume a larger and larger share of the nation's overall medical care budget, but they do not buy better health for the majority. These dollars may be better spent on sanitation, clean water and disease prevention rather than spectacularly saving one person's life with extraordinary medical interventions.
Rationally we may agree that we might use our health care resources better, but when it comes to ourselves or loved ones we often want everything possible done to preserve our and their lives. This is a very emotional decision that affects us all, but most of us don't understand what quality of life our dollars buy. In addition, there are a large number of risks associated with hospital care. Infections and mistakes contribute to many poor outcomes. TV medical shows very rarely show the bad outcomes so we are led to believe that we are relatively more safe in the hospital than we really are. With their false sense of safety, people often use the emergency rooms and hospitals for relatively minor problems that clog the system for true emergencies, thereby spending more of our dollars for relatively minor illnesses.
The concept of health is itself not well defined. Do we provide people with better health if we fix their physical ailments, but leave them impoverished by their medical bills? Shouldn't we include a financial component in a definition for a person's overall health? What about other components such as the potential for social interaction and the ability to move as options? Perhaps a better definition for a person's overall health would be to measure a person's overall options in the physical, psychological, social and financial realms.
Unfortunately these solutions are not exciting enough to capture the public imagination and therefore the attention of the news media. The exciting, costly and most risky medical procedures will continue to lead us toward an increasingly expensive future with very little to show for our dollars spent. That is the future that modern medicine is currently leading us toward and there appears to be very little that we can do to stop it.