IN the 1980s, I worked as a respiratory therapist in intensive-care units in the Midwest, taking care of elderly, dying patients on ventilators. I remember marveling, along with the young doctors and nurses I worked with, over how many millions of dollars were spent performing insanely expensive procedures, scans and tests on patients who would never regain consciousness or leave the hospital.
When the insurance ran out, or Medicare stopped paying, patients and their families gave the hospital liens on their homes to pay for this care. Families spent their entire savings so Grandma could make yet another trip to the surgical suite on the slim-to-none chance that bypass surgery, a thoracotomy, an endoscopy or kidney dialysis might get her off the ventilator and out of the hospital in time for her 88th birthday.
That was back in the mid-’80s, when the nation was spending around 8 percent of its gross domestic product on health care. I and other health care workers solemnly agreed that the spending spree could not continue. Taxpayers and insurance companies would eventually revolt and refuse to pay for such end-of-life care. Somebody would surely expose the ruse for what it was: an enormous transfer of wealth based on the pretense that getting old and dying is a medical emergency requiring high-tech intensive-care intervention and armies of specialists, which could cost $10,000 or more per day. (Europeans have so far resisted this delusion, one reason they spend much less than we do on health care, with far better results.)
But we were wrong. Health care spending has since doubled, to around 16 percent of our gross domestic product, and in the next 25 years or so is projected to reach 31 percent of G.D.P. Despite having those figures in hand, Congress might still pass legislation calling for spending more, not less, on health care, even though we’ve been told for decades that what we spend has almost nothing to do with the quality of care we receive.
In fact, expensive care is often worse care, because it snowballs into what some are calling an “epidemic of overtreatment,” in which unnecessary procedures, tests and medications all spawn more tests, more meds (to treat the side effects of the first batch) and more follow-up scans and procedures (in stand-alone clinics owned by the same doctors prescribing the tests, scans and procedures).
With so much evidence of wasteful and even harmful treatment, shouldn’t we instantly cut some of the money spent on exorbitant intensive-care medicine for dying, elderly people and redirect it to pediatricians and obstetricians offering preventive care for children and mothers? Sadly, we are very far from this goal. A cynic would argue that this can’t happen because children can’t vote (even if their parents can), whereas members of AARP and the American Medical Association not only vote but can also hire lobbyists to keep the money flowing.
One thing’s for sure: Our health care system has failed. Generational spending wars loom on the horizon. Rationing of health care is imminent. But given the political inertia, we could soon find ourselves in a triage situation in which there is no time or money to create medical-review boards to ponder cost-containment issues or rationing schemes. We’ll be forced to implement quick-and-dirty rules based on something simple, sensible and easily verifiable. Like age. As in: No federal funds to be spent on intensive-care medicine for anyone over 85.
I am not, of course, talking about euthanasia. I’m just wondering why the nation continues incurring enormous debt to pay for bypass surgery and titanium-knee replacements for octogenarians and nonagenarians, when for just a small fraction of those costs we could provide children with preventive health care and nutrition. Eight million children have no health insurance, but their parents pay 3 percent of their salaries to Medicare to make sure that seniors get the very best money can buy in prescription drugs for everything from restless leg syndrome to erectile dysfunction, scooters and end-of-life intensive care.
Sir William Osler, widely revered as the father of modern medicine, said, “One of the first duties of the physician is to educate the masses not to take medicine.” Perhaps the second duty should be to administer an ounce of prevention instead of a pound of cure.
Richard Dooling is the author of “Critical Care,” a novel.