Today when America is facing a serious economic crisis, solving the problems of healthcare has also become a very big challenge for President Obama. America is spending more than any other country on healthcare yet Americans are one of the unhealthiest people in the World. About 50 million Americans have no coverage for healthcare and unpaid medical bills are the commonest cause for filing bankruptcy.
If we consider obesity and mental stress indicators of poor health then more than 80% of the population can be called unhealthy. About 75% of Americans are carrying more weight than they should. Similarly, a very large proportion of the population is suffering from difficulty in coping with mental stress, anxiety and depression. Insomnia has become a very big problem. Some people feel that insomnia was responsible for Michael Jackson’s death also. Many people are taking sleeping pills. The physicians write millions of prescriptions for sleeping pills, anti anxiety pills and anti depressants. If we add these to the blood pressure lowering medicines, blood sugar lowering and cholesterol lowering medicines then probably America will set an all time record in human history of the largest percentage of the population taking any kind of medicine. It has become almost a rarity that a person reaches age 50 without taking any medicine.
I feel that the biggest reason for this sorry state of affairs is racism and consumerism. How does racism affect the health care? America is getting more polarized. The minorities, except the Asians, are becoming poorer and less educated than the white population. The gap between the white and the non white is not closing. The whites and the minorities are also getting more polarized as far as the type of work is concerned. Generally, the minorities are doing the jobs which require more physical labor, (blue collar jobs) and the whites are doing more desk jobs, (white collar jobs). The gap between the rich and the poor is also widening. There are studies to show that the quality of healthcare goes down as the society becomes more polarized.
The whites and the minorities do not receive the same quality of care. In one of the studies the actors pretended to be patients and received different advice from the doctors when the patient was white or a minority. For example if someone has poor circulation in a leg then a white patient is more likely to receive advice for a reconstructive surgery to save the leg whereas a black patient is more likely to receive advice for amputation. A recent University of Washington study showed that the doctors preferred white patients.
The life expectancy, infant and maternal mortality statistics have big differences for the white and the minorities. For example, life expectancy for a white male is close to 80 years but a Native American male living on Indian reservation has less than 50 years life expectancy. These statistics for the minorities are worse than many third World countries.
The healthcare providers belonging to the minority communities are many times subjected to different standards than their white counter parts. I have heard from many minority physicians that they are more likely to go after a physician if his name sounds like a non white name. One also gets the impression that a white physician is more like to get more lenient treatment compared to a minority physician for the same offence.
Consumerism is playing a big role in the healthcare. Those treatment modalities are more likely to be promoted which can generate more profit for the hospitals, drug companies, insurance companies or the healthcare providers. Healthy life style is not strongly promoted. Generally those treatments are promoted which will make the patient feel better quickly “Quick fix” rather than making a long term commitment to change the life style. Preventive medicine is generally less emphasized. Some attorneys seem more interested in making a quick buck rather than protecting the genuine interests of the patients. Such a consumerist legal system has become a drain on the healthcare system. America is probably the most litigious society the world has ever seen.
Dr. Sawraj Singh is Chairman of Washington State Network For Human Rights, and Chairman of Central Washington Coalition For Social Justice.