Our Front-Row Seat as US Health Care System Goes Awry
It seemed straightforward enough. I had come back from overseas with a nagging rock climbing injury - this twangy wrist that hadn't gotten better after months of on-again-off-again rest time.
Fortunately, I had health insurance.
So I did what made sense at the time: I went to a sports doctor. This guy had come highly recommended. He was a professor of sports physiology. He treated the university football team. He was a legend.
Dr. Football checked out the wrist, listened to my story, shook his head, and put me in that classic carpal-tunnel-sydrome-looking wrist brace. I was told to hang out for a couple of weeks and see how it felt.
I told him that I didn't have time to wait around - I was moving, and I needed to know now if anything serious was going on. I wanted to take care of things and do a good job. Too many old sports injuries. I could feel the tension rising. This guy was not into it. He paused, looked at me, and finally agreed to send me to a hand surgeon.
I went to see this hand surgeon. They say she's one of the best in the valley.
She called for an x-ray. I demanded the MRI.
Turned out, I had torn at least one, if not more, ligaments and the TFCC cartilage. My ulna had popped out of place and was several millimeters away from where it needed to be.
I got a full-on elbow splint - with my palm facing the completely opposite direction of what Doctor #1 had suggested - a massive course of NSAIDs, and the privilege of quitting my serving job.
Five weeks later, I'm back at her office.
She takes the splint off and tries to send me on my way. I demand another x-ray. It checks out. No physical therapy referral, no advice on what I should be doing next.
I would say that I got a maximum of 10 minutes face time over the course of two months.
So I decide to be a responsible health care consumer. I take it upon myself to get the PT sorted.
The physical therapists are shocked. They begin to tell me that my ulna is still out of place. They begin to tell me that I will need surgery one day. The sooner, the better.
Weeks later, my COBRA plan runs out.
Done and done.
This NY Times article, "A Front-Row Seat as a Health Care System Goes Awry," discusses emergency room doctor Robert L. Martensen's view of the national health care crisis:
In addition to all the issues around health insurance and who pays, we have a system that costs more than any in the world and where almost everyone is unhappy. Patients feel, “Nobody is listening to me.” Hospital administrators are unhappy because the bottom line has become paramount and their mission has gotten lost. The heads of the large professional organizations feel there is no center anymore; it’s just atomized interest groups, hustling and scrambling. Physicians are disgruntled by their inability to practice the way they’d like. Many are quitting.
I would say that we all have a front-row seat as our health care system goes awry. Every one of us who has had to deal with an inadequate health care system.
According to a Harvard study published in Health Affairs:
Illness and medical bills caused half of the 1,458,000 personal bankruptcies in 2001, according to a study published by the journal Health Affairs.
Surprisingly, most of those bankrupted by illness had health insurance. More than three-quarters were insured at the start of the bankrupting illness. However, 38 percent had lost coverage at least temporarily by the time they filed for bankruptcy.
Most of the medical bankruptcy filers were middle class; 56 percent owned a home and the same number had attended college. In many cases, illness forced breadwinners to take time off from work -- losing income and job-based health insurance precisely when families needed it most.
This story is not a new one. My experience is certainly not an isolated one, and I am fully aware of how low it rates on the spectrum of health crises. So when I think about how important my situation was to my life and work, it makes me furious to think about what the majority of this country is going through."
And I said this to her: "You have to understand, this is my life. As an athlete, as an employee, this is what I do. And whatever it takes to get better, I'll do it."
I was willing, but apparently, she wasn't. Why, I doubt I'll ever know. I'm sure she was busy, I'm sure she had a thousand people to see. I'm sure there were a lot of factors. But that doesn't fix patients.
People go on about how hard it is to change anything these days. But as I watched Obama's inaugural address, and as I've thought about how much a little care from that one doctor would have changed my life, I realized the impact that one person can have on another.
That is where our focus needs to be. Sure, far-reaching policies that bring health care to millions will certainly improve our quality of life. These things need to happen. But until we have doctors who truly care about each individual patient they treat - who have the time to care about each patient they treat - we'll be stuck in the same place. I fervently believe that those physicians are out there. I feel so much empathy for the compassionate doctors who are trying to do everything in their power to practice good medicine.
My hope for these next four years is that this country can make great progress on this issue. In considering basic human rights, health care needs to be on the agenda, both locally and globally.
Let's see if we can make it happen. Indeed, it has to.
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Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada