Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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New topic 2019-03-21 19:29:46 description

The Cost of Meeting Unmet Medical Needs

For fifteen years before Medicare, I practiced medicine in Philadelphia. At that time, the backlog of unmet medical care seemed infinite, impossible to satisfy. For one thing, we didn't have enough hospitals to fix all the hernias, gallstone, rotten teeth, festering bad leg veins, positive blood tests for syphilis, and a dozen other matters. But we set about it, doubling the number of medical students in each school's class, and doubling the number of schools. We built or renovated and re-equipped 124 hospitals in Philadelphia alone, as I remember.

Well, we were successful. It is no longer true that everybody's teeth are rotten, or that one Wasserman test in six is positive. Instead of throwing up our hands at infinity of unmet elective surgical cases, we now hear suspicions that perhaps cataracts are being "harvested", cardiac pacemakers becoming universal apparel, tummies being tucked. But professional jealousies to one side, an undeniable statistic emerges. We only have thirty hospitals.

Backlogs are like waterfalls. The level seems limitless until it suddenly disappears from sight. We spent far too much money on new hospital capital construction, and that spending spree has to account for a major portion of the cost of medical care that now doesn't seem to be producing anything worthwhile. These are the training costs of what can now be seen as temporary construction.

These thoughts came to me when a visitor to the Federal Reserve from Kazakhstan talked recently about medical care in that vast wasteland. At a time when petroleum supplies are short, Kazakhstan has discovered it has possession of the largest new oil field in the world. The social scene is like Texas in the Twenties, or perhaps the Yukon fifty years earlier. Whereas today it is questionable whether to spend the money to perform a Wasserman in America, positive tests are widely abundant in Kazakhstan. I daresay the hernias, varicose veins, bad teeth, and whatnot are just as bad there as they were in America in 1960. And they are gunning up their engines to build lots of the biggest most expensive hospitals anywhere because they can afford them.

Prediction: in 2050 nobody will be able to explain why medical costs are so high in Kazakhstan. After all, at that time there will be no positive Wasserman, no hernias, no gallstones.

Originally published: Thursday, May 24, 2007; most-recently modified: Thursday, June 06, 2019