“Your Health Checkup” is our online column by Dr. Douglas Zipes, an internationally acclaimed cardiologist, professor, author, inventor, and authority on pacing and electrophysiology. Dr. Zipes is also a contributor to The Saturday Evening Post print magazine. Subscribe to receive thoughtful articles, new fiction, health and wellness advice, and gems from our archive.
United States health care is in crisis. Excessive costs, a shortage of medical workers, and a reduced number of hospital beds, along with the confluence of COVID, flu, and respiratory syncytial viral infections, have stressed the system to its limits. In fact, a nurse in a hospital in Silverdale, Washington became so overwhelmed with too few nurses to care for 45 patients in the emergency room, she called 911 dispatchers for help. They sent the fire department to assist!
A recent article in the New York Times highlighted the crisis at Ascension Health Care, one of the country’s largest health care systems, where chronic understaffing left patients with serious, time-sensitive illnesses lying on gurneys waiting for a bed, and too few nurses to provide appropriate care, often at the expense of patient safety.
Several months ago, my daughter sought emergency care to receive rabies vaccine and immunoglobulin injections after a bite to her leg from a stray dog. For a 20-minute visit, the hospital billed her $25,269, which included $19,534 for the immunoglobulin injections! A physician’s fee was an additional $540. Fortunately, insurance negotiated most of the expense, but the charges are outrageous. The CDC estimates the cost of such therapy is typically between $3,000 and $7,000. Even that seems excessive since the rabies vaccine costs about $300. The immunoglobulin can be as high as $8,000, which also seems overpriced. Contrast that price tag with rabies therapy in England, which is less than $2,000.
The fact that American medical science leads the world doesn’t make us the healthiest nation, even though we spent more than $4 trillion on health care in 2021, almost 20 percent of the gross domestic product. That figure is likely to increase to more than $6 trillion by 2028.
We fail to capitalize on the fact that it is preferable and less expensive to prevent illness than to treat it. Consequently, we outspend any other developed country but live shorter lives and have poorer health outcomes to show for it. We need to invest in the forces that shape health, such as good housing, safe, clean neighborhoods, livable wages, adequate nutrition, and especially preventive measures.
It is unconscionable that a person’s zip code can determine their life span. Working toward health care equity will help narrow the gap between white and non-white populations but will take time. While most of us cannot impact the global forces that affect health, we can improve our own health by inexpensive and simple means such as controlling our diet, stress, body weight, physical activity, blood pressure, and cholesterol, and by not smoking. Today’s environment adds two other simple measures: wearing a mask at appropriate times and getting vaccinated.
On a flight last week from Miami, my wife and I were among a small handful wearing masks — this, despite the upsurge in viral infections. Vaccine hesitancy adds to today’s morbidity and mortality risks due to an unrealistic fear of side effects, compounded by misinformation. Only a third of the country has received updated COVID boosters and less than 2/3 have received flu vaccines. Measles infections are on the rise, in part due to reduced vaccinations during the COVID pandemic.
Be your own doctor! Determine your own health! Do not be the one waking up with chills, fever, and cough, seeking emergency help. Pay attention to the simple and available measures that impact not only how long you live, but how well you live long.
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