The system is sick

We spent $2.2 trillion on health care in 2006 and ranked 42nd in the world for life expectancy. How can that be? We have the best of the best doctors and the most sophisticated medical equipment. There is nowhere better in the world to get disease management.

It is not a MD problem or a lack of resources, it is a system problem. Because every hospital is equipped with the best physicians and state of the art equipment, our medical overhead is exorbitant. Additionally, malpractice insurance is in the stratosphere. Those without health insurance often are getting their health care from the emergency rooms and urgent care clinics (see page 14 for more on this topic). This is the most expensive medicine.

One of the biggest sectors in the construction industry is new medical facilities. Given this high overhead we must have throughput. The demand for medical care is increasing as the baby boomers age, the MDs today are seeing 25 to 40 patients per day. Fewer and fewer doctors take Medicare due to poor reimbursement. In the average 10 minute visit we can only address the most pressing of our patients’ needs. As a result we end up with a system that does well at managing disease with surgery or pharmaceuticals. Thank goodness we have these options, as they have saved many lives. However, we often don’t have time to address the underlying cause of disease. We address the immediate problem but don’t address how our patients got there.

We need to get creative to address these problems. I recently returned from the Integrative Medicine Conference in New York City. This conference is held to teach health care practitioners to address the cause of disease and work to help patients take charge of their own health. This is where medicine is heading. Many clinics and major hospitals now are adding acupuncture, naturopathy, massage and psychoneuroimmunologists to their staff. These practitioners are addressing underlying issues. This is what patients want and it is being used as a marketing tool to get more patients with good insurance to visit their facilities. During a rotation I did at Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Tulsa, a large percentage of people flew in for care because they wanted an integrative approach.

Employers are now addressing the biggest hit to their bottom line – health care costs – by instituting employee wellness education programs and employing traditional and complementary practitioners on site. The return on investment comes in the form of less absenteeism, increased productivity and lower premiums for insurance due to decreased utilization by their employees – not to mention employee recruitment and retention.

Health insurance is like our car insurance – it is for a wreck. If we want to stay healthy we need to be informed and pay out of pocket for our oil changes, tire rotation and tune ups. Unlike our car, our bodies are irreplaceable. But employers can help keep them healthy and keep everyone’s costs down with regular and available maintenance.

Look for Dr. Bye’s new column in the Health Care and Hospitals focus section on employee wellness programs. Other new health care columnists include Bullivant Houser Bailey attorney Aaron Besen and First Independent banker Glenda Michael.