The Health Care Crisis: A Crisis of Ideas

There is a so-called ‘health care crisis’ going on in the United States today.

The current health care crisis as understood by many people can be summarized as follows:  The cost of health care in America is sky-rocketing, many people can no longer afford to pay for quality health care, and because of this people are suffering and dying needlessly or going broke trying to pay for health care. 

The solution to this health care crisis is understood to be as follows:  Quality health care must be made affordable to the masses.  How this solution is reached is a matter of much debate and will not be discussed in the paragraphs that follow.

The real health care crisis is a crisis of ideas.  The real health care crisis is a misunderstanding of what health care is, what our expectations of health care are, what our responsibilities are in regards to our own health care, and of what kinds of health care Western medicine is good at delivering.

The current health care crisis will always be a crisis no matter how much money we throw at it until we take a step back from the problem as we have defined it, take a long, quiet look at our assumptions regarding the problem, and then finally, each of us as individuals, must take responsibility for our own health care.

The Helpless Doctor and the Hopeless Patient

Imagine, if you will, a competent physician with an expensive medical degree and years of experience in her (or his) field of expertise.  Into her office walks a typical patient.  This patient is 50 pounds overweight, does not exercise, works at a job sitting at a desk all day long, is stressed out, eats a horrible diet that you wouldn’t recommend feeding to any animal you loved, smokes, drinks, has poor sleeping habits, and does not have a lot of extra money due to the current economic situation.

This patient seriously expects the doctor to provide them with some kind of treatment that will make them feel better.  Not only do they expect the doctor to make them feel better, they expect the treatment they receive will make their problem disappear and never return.

And because of the current economic situation and because of the large portion of the patient’s paycheck that is being used to pay for health care, the patient has a bit of a chip on their shoulder that is directed at the entire health care system.  Unfortunately the only face the patient has of the health care system is their physician.  So the physician receives mild negativity on an ongoing basis from their patients for something that is totally out of their control.

Here is the unwritten, unsaid contract between the patient and the physician from the patient’s perspective:  I will take no responsibility for my body or for my own health care, and you, health care provider, will fix all of my health care problems, and because my health care premiums are so much more expensive than they ever were, my expectations are higher than ever, and my respect for you is lower than ever because you represent the problem of the entire health care system. 

Here is the unwritten, unsaid contract between the physician and the patient from the physician’s perspective:  I will make you wait 20 minutes in the waiting room and then give you 15 minutes of my time when you schedule an appointment (I would like to give you more, but due to staff reductions caused by cost-cutting measures I am overbooked and overworked), regardless of what I really think you should do to take better care of yourself, I will listen to you, check you out a bit, and finally prescribe some medicine for you or recommend some type of surgery, because I know when you receive expensive medication or surgery that you will feel like you are getting your money’s-worth for the health care dollars you are spending.  I do not look forward to seeing you again within the next six weeks, but regrettably I know I will.

Drugs and Surgery: the Cornerstones of Western Medicine

The cornerstones of Western medicine are drugs and surgery.  The overriding principle of Western medicine is to substitute the body’s self-healing ability by directly intervening on a disease or symptom using primarily drugs and surgery.

Western medicine is particularly strong in crisis situations where dramatic results are required to save a life in critical stages of a disease or following a traumatic event.

If I have stage 4 cancer, I want Western medicine and I want it now!  If I was just in a car accident and am riding in an ambulance and I’m asked by the EMTs which hospital I want to be taken to, every time I will say “the nearest Western medicine facility” instead of “Master Shifu’s House of Acupuncture.” 

One can argue that antibiotics, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, C-sections, etc. cause as much harm to the body as good, but they are effective in many cases nonetheless. 

The problem with Western medicine (if there is one), is our expectation that it will cure every ailment.   Our expectation is caused by our lack of understanding of Western medicine’s strengths and weaknesses.  Coupled with our false expectation is our growing fantasy as a culture that we should not age, that we should live forever, and (as mentioned previously) that our health care should require minimal effort on our part.

Western medicine has several weaknesses.  Western medicine produces a high rate of difficult to predict side effects.  Tens of thousands of people die each year in the US due to side-effects from medication.  Many people also die each year due to complications following surgery.  Western medicine also tends to be very expensive due to high technology costs.

Dead bodies and high costs aside, perhaps the greatest weakness of Western medicine is that it tends to treat symptoms more than than it treats causes of disease.  One could say that this was intended by design, but I honestly don’t think that physicians choose to treat symptoms instead of causes so that they can have a steady stream of customers.  Symptoms are treated instead of causes because Western medicine doesn’t know anything else.

Fortunately, Americans and American physicians are waking up to Eastern medicine.  Eastern medicine is the yin to the yang of Western medicine.

Eastern medicine includes an array of treatments that aim to facilitate the body’s ability to heal itself.  These treatments include (but are not limited to) acupuncture, herbal medicine, energy healing, massage, dietary therapy, moxibustion, Qi Gong, and meditation.

Eastern medicine’s strengths are that it produces few if any harmful side-effects (and oftentimes it produces good side-effects), it is relatively low-cost, it treats the cause rather than the symptom, it is able to treat multiple-cause disorders, and it can strengthen the body’s systems and prevent future illnesses.

But, again, if you are in a car accident or you’ve just had a stroke, you’d probably be better off going to the hospital emergency room than slamming a fistful of Chinese herbs and performing your favorite T’ai Ch’i sequence while watching a Braco the Gazer video on YouTube on endless repeat mode.

Conclusion

There are those that talk down about Western medicine and choose to only utilize Eastern medicine, and vice versa.  This is a mistake.  All forms of healing have value.  There is no ‘silver bullet’ of healing.  All forms of healing should be leveraged against disease and suffering.

I will reframe the health care crisis using the ideas expressed above (please pretend that President Obama is reading the following words):  “Western medicine is the only recognized valid form of medicine in the United States.  We expect Western medicine to cure all forms of disease and suffering against all odds and especially against the insurmountable wave of our citizens’ blatant disrespect and irresponsibility to themselves, their bodies, and the environment they live in.  Western medicine will cure symptoms only and not causes of disease.  Western medicine will eliminate aging and death against the laws of the universe.  And charged with such a grand task, we are surprised that the costs of Western medicine have grown out of control.  We should pass a law forcing all citizens to purchase insurance for Western medicine.”

The solution to this crisis is as follows:  People should be strongly encouraged to exercise daily, eat a reasonable, well-balanced diet, and to maintain a healthy weight.  People should be strongly encouraged to get plenty of sleep.  People should be educated in ways of reducing stress in their lives and should be strongly encouraged to reduce stress in their lives.  People should be reminded that it is perfectly natural to grow old and to die.  Eastern medicine practices should be promoted for their strengths.  People should be educated about the strengths and weaknesses of Western medicine.  It might be a good idea to have some form of emergency Western medicine insurance in case of a crisis situation.  With the money people save on this less expensive form of Western medicine insurance, they will feel better about paying cash for Eastern medicine treatments and holistic & natural medicine treatments, such as acupuncture, massage, and vitamin supplements.

People should also remember that good health, that balance, is a continual, lifelong pursuit and that there is no one thing that will make you feel good forever, except for the daily work you invest in your health and well-being.

Best Wishes and Enjoy!

(Special thanks to Matthew D. Bauer for his book The Healing Power of Acupressure and Acupuncture.)

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