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The Argument for Incremental Reform

By Clive Riddle, January 22, 2009

The New Yorker magazine, of all places, has one of the best essays on health care reform I’ve read in quite a while. I subscribe to The New Yorker, but often manage to miss anything good, being a shallow New Yorker reader, skimming as I do to browse the movie reviews and cartoons.

Fard Johnmar, President of Envision Solutions, sent me the link. I blog with Fard for ChangeNow4Health, the health care reform initiative which is currently undergoing an upgrade and transformation, hopefully like the health care system may someday soon.

So now I pass the link on to you: “Getting There From Here”, by Atul Gawande, from the current (January 26th, 2009) issue of The New Yorker:

So here’s excerpts of three key points the author makes:

  1. “On the left, then, single-payer enthusiasts argue that the only coherent solution is to end private health insurance and replace it with a national insurance program. And, on the right, the free marketeers argue that the only coherent solution is to end public insurance and employer-controlled health benefits so that we can all buy our own coverage and put market forces to work. Neither side can stand the other. But both reserve special contempt for the pragmatists, who would build around the mess we have. The country has this one chance, the idealist maintains, to sweep away our inhumane, wasteful patchwork system and replace it with something new and more rational. So we should prepare for a bold overhaul, just as every other Western democracy has. True reform requires transformation at a stroke. But is this really the way it has occurred in other countries? The answer is no. And the reality of how health reform has come about elsewhere is both surprising and instructive."

  2. “American health care is an appallingly patched-together ship, with rotting timbers, water leaking in, mercenaries on board, and fifteen per cent of the passengers thrown over the rails just to keep it afloat. But hundreds of millions of people depend on it. The system provides more than thirty-five million hospital stays a year, sixty-four million surgical procedures, nine hundred million office visits, three and a half billion prescriptions. It represents a sixth of our economy. There is no dry-docking health care for a few months, or even for an afternoon, while we rebuild it. Grand plans admit no possibility of mistakes or failures, or the chance to learn from them. If we get things wrong, people will die. This doesn’t mean that ambitious reform is beyond us. But we have to start with what we have.”

  3. “So accepting the path-dependent nature of our health-care system—recognizing that we had better build on what we’ve got—doesn’t mean that we have to curtail our ambitions. The overarching goal of health-care reform is to establish a system that has three basic attributes. It should leave no one uncovered—medical debt must disappear as a cause of personal bankruptcy in America. It should no longer be an economic catastrophe for employers. And it should hold doctors, nurses, hospitals, drug and device companies, and insurers collectively responsible for making care better, safer, and less costly.”

Doctor Gawande makes a compelling point in the essay about the other western industrialized nations, all providers of a much more comprehensive national health care system, that belies the perception often advanced by reform advocates in either camp. These nations didn’t throw out old health care systems with the bathwater, and start from scratch. They evolved into them, based on their own unique circumstances. England and France, for example, had World War II as an intervention that led them down their current path.

Doctor Gawande warns that throwing out our system with the bathwater could be more harmful to patients and the nation, than building, albeit with a greater urgency, something new out of what we have already.

By the way, who is Doctor Gawande, you ask? Atul Gawande, MD, MPH, Associate Professor of Health Policy and Management, Harvard School of Public Health is a noted physician and author, and has just been in the news last week, co-authoring an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, “A Surgical Safety Checklist to Reduce Morbidity and Mortality in a Global Population” providing results form eight hospital pilot sites around the world. Doctor Gawande is the head of the School’s “Safe Surgery Saves Lives Study Group" which in collaboration with the World Health Organization introduced and rolled out the Safe Surgery initiative to introduce new safety checklists for surgical teams and implemented the system with the pilot hospitals.

So click the link already, and read it yourself.

Reader Comments (1)

It's a very good essay, but I've never bought the World War 2 argument. After WW2, the British government took over the steel factories, coal mines, and railroads, too. Now they are all back in private hands. Lest we forget, the U.S. went through WW2 as well!

February 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJohn R. Graham

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