I listen to the radio a lot on my way to and from work — public radio mostly, where the topic of healthcare reform has been a hot item of late.
I’ve heard an endless parade of different viewpoints on the matter, from legislators, doctors and policy wonks of all stripes. But there’s one radio moment that keeps repeating itself like a bad case of déja vu, and it is driving me crazy.
It goes something like this:
Host: So, Mr. or Ms. Healthcare Expert, in the big debate about how to hold down healthcare costs, we’re hearing a lot about chronic disease and the importance of prevention. What does prevention involve, exactly, and what role does it play in resolving this crisis?
Expert: Preventive medicine is very important and it has to be a part of any meaningful attempt to control costs. (Expert then launches into a whole spiel on regular exams and screenings, early intervention, vaccinations, flu shots, blah blah blah.)
Host: Thanks for that explanation, Mr. Expert. We’ve got Informed Caller from Anycity, USA, on the line with a question. Go ahead, Informed.
Caller: I get what your expert is saying, but given that most chronic diseases are lifestyle related, don’t we also need to focus on educating people about the dangers of the Standard American Diet and being too sedentary? Don’t we need to put some policy and public-education emphasis on actually changing people’s behavior, providing incentives, and helping them take some responsibility for keeping themselves healthy?
Expert: The caller makes a good point. Of course we want to see people eating better and exercising more, but getting people to change their behavior is really difficult. Americans want to be free to eat what they please and do what they like, and most doctors don’t really feel it’s their place to interfere with their patients’ personal choices.
Host: Indeed. Well moving on, Mr. Expert, let’s talk a little about the pros and cons of this single-payer system that everyone’s talking about . . .
And that’s that. Inside of 30 seconds we’ve gotten an abridged dialogue that pretty well represents the current, conventional thinking in both medicine and government circles. The ultimate 3-trillion-dollar question is posed (and inevitably, in radio at least, it always seems to come from an average-person caller): Don’t we need to start focusing on getting people to change their habits and take more personal responsibility for their health? And then the brief, inevitable answer lands with a thud: Yes, but getting people to change is difficult, so let’s just move on.
At moments like these, it’s all I can do to keep from knocking my head repeatedly on the steering wheel.
“So we’re not doing it because it’s difficult?” I say to myself. “Difficult like winning our independence from Britain, or securing voting rights for women and people of color, or flying to the moon? Difficult in some way that having a huge population suffering miserably from obesity, diabetes and cancer isn’t?”
Seriously, can our so-called experts really believe that convincing a large sector of the population to make changes in the way they eat and exercise will be anywhere near as daunting as continuing to deal with the effects of not doing so?
In an era where calls for personal responsibility are becoming more popular, I, for one, would love to hear our President and elected officials call on Americans to lay off the burgers, sodas, fries, white bread and cheese dip and get out for a morning walk or evening yoga class.
I’d love to hear experts debating what kinds of subsidies, tax deductions, grants, initiatives and education efforts will have the best healthy-choice-supporting effects.
And I’d particularly love to hear an expert on the radio saying, “Yes, the caller is right, and we should really devote another hour or two to talking about this, because until more Americans get the encouragement and education they need to begin living healthier lifestyles, no amount of tinkering with our healthcare system is going to solve the problem.”
While I await that day, I satisfy myself with the evidence of progress — like watching Dr. Mark Hyman, Dr. Mehmet Oz, Dr. Andrew Weil and Dr. Dean Ornish testify before the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions about how supporting healthy lifestyle change must become a top policy priority. You can grab a link to video of that hearing here (just search on “senate hearing”) if you want to see it for yourself.
In the meantime, I hope you’ll enjoy this issue, which we dedicate to motivated health seekers everywhere — and to the many health-supporting things they do quite happily each and every day.