Summary: A physician-anthropologist highlights the conflict plaguing today’s medical profession: the contradiction of medical values and a profit-focused health care system. He advocates collective action for universal health care following the single payer model.
Doctors Aren’t Burned Out From Overwork. We’re Demoralized by Our Health System., New York Times, February 5, 2023, by Eric Reinhart (political anthropologist and physician, Northwestern University)
The United States is the only large high-income nation that doesn’t provide universal health care to its citizens. Instead, it maintains a lucrative system of for-profit medicine. For decades, at least tens of thousands of preventable deaths have occurred each year because health care here is so expensive.
What’s burning out health care workers is less the grueling conditions we practice under, and more our dwindling faith in the systems for which we work. What has been identified as occupational burnout is a symptom of a deeper collapse. We are witnessing the slow death of American medical ideology.
During the pandemic, physicians have witnessed our hospitals nearly fall apart as a result of underinvestment in public health systems and uneven distribution of medical infrastructure. Long-ignored inequalities in the standard of care available to rich and poor Americans became front-page news.
According to an investigation in The New York Times, ostensibly nonprofit charity hospitals have illegally saddled poor patients with debt for receiving care to which they were entitled without cost and have exploited tax incentives meant to promote care for poor communities to turn large profits. Hospitals are deliberately understaffing themselves and undercutting patient care while sitting on billions of dollars in cash reserves. Little of this is new, but doctors’ sense of our complicity in putting profits over people has grown more difficult to ignore.
From at least the 1930s through today, doctors have organized efforts to ward off the specter of “socialized medicine.” We have repeatedly defended health care as a business venture against the threat that it might become a public institution oriented around rights rather than revenue.
This is in part because doctors were told that if health care were made a public service, we would lose our professional autonomy and make less money. For a profession that had fought for more than a century to achieve elite status, this resonated.
For example, a system of billing codes invented by the American Medical Association as part of a political strategy to protect its vision of for-profit health care now dictates nearly every aspect of medical practice, producing not just endless administrative work, but also subtly shaping treatment choices.
Addressing the failures of the health care system will require uncomfortable reflection and bold action. Any illusion that medicine and politics are, or should be, separate spheres has been crushed under the weight of over 1.1 million Americans killed by a pandemic that was in many ways a preventable disaster. And many physicians are now finding it difficult to quash the suspicion that our institutions, and much of our work inside them, primarily serve a moneymaking machine.
Doctors can no longer be passive witnesses to these harms. We have a responsibility to use our collective power to insist on changes: for universal health care and paid sick leave but also investments in community health worker programs and essential housing and social welfare systems.
Neither major political party is making universal health care a priority right now, but doctors nonetheless hold considerable power to initiate reforms in health policy. If we can build an organizing network, then proposals to demand universal health care through use of collective civil disobedience via physicians’ control over health care documentation and billing, for example, could move from visions to genuinely actionable plans.
Regardless of whether we act through unions or other means, the fact remains that until doctors join together to call for a fundamental reorganization of our medical system, our work won’t do what we promised it would do, nor will it prioritize the people we claim to prioritize. To be able to build the systems we need, we must face an unpleasant truth: Our health care institutions as they exist today are part of the problem rather than the solution.
By Don McCanne, M.D.
Eric Reinhart already said what I have to say, “Until doctors join together to call for a fundamental reorganization of our medical system, our work won’t do what we promised it would do, nor will it prioritize the people we claim to prioritize.”
Of course, the model on which we can all work together and which will prioritize all of the people is single payer.
The House of Representatives this month passed a ridiculous resolution condemning “socialism” when it should have passed a resolution supporting public policy while condemning divisive politics. This would have provided a bipartisan pathway to bring us single payer. I tell you, it would have cured my burnout.
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