By RJ Eskow
This country is in a healthcare crisis today -- but we're not thinking enough about tomorrow either. Here are seven trends to watch, starting with the short-term and ending with what may seem more like science-fiction.
The seven trends are: Doctors leaving the public system, a shortfall in primary care, underutilization of medical treatment, "superbugs," virtual health care, climate change, and radical self-redesign and enhancement.
1. Doctors Leaving the Public System: Medicare dodged a bullet when Congress stopped a substantial pay cut for physicians this month. But doctors continue to leave the Medicare system -- in Texas, in Washington State, in Tennessee, and elsewhere. And many doctors already limit the number of Medicaid patients they accept. Shortages will become more acute as SCHIP and other reforms (hopefully) increase the number of Medicare and Medicaid recipients, and they'll hit lower-income and minority communities first and hardest.
2. Unavailability of Primary Care Doctors: Primary physicians (internists, family practitioners, gerontologists, etc. ) aren't paid enough. It's part of a general tendency to under-compensate for "cognitive services" -- thinking, talking, and diagnosis. Doctors are economic actors like the rest of us. So the result of this payment bias is a critical lack of "cognitive" physicians who should be the drivers of the medical process. Instead, young doctors are being lured into high-cost specialties. This increases the use of costly (and sometimes unnecessary procedures), according to studies conducted at Dartmouth and elsewhere.
This shortage is already crippling health reform in Massachusetts. The idea of increasing compensation for primary care keeps circling around in health circles, as it is now -- along with the concept of a "medical home," which is a re-articulation of health reform ideas that appear at regular intervals like comets. The thinking is probably correct, but the problem will persist -- until there is fundamental reform in the way doctors are educated, compensated, and rewarded with social status. And meaningful reform will be difficult without adequate primary care.
3. Underutilization: Medical policy types are well-versed in the cost problems and health complications that stem from over-utilization of health services. Over-utilization is a central tenet of the McCain health proposals. But, while it occurs -- especially in certain specialties -- the reverse problem of under-utilization is prevalent and growing.
As insurers and employers shift more and more costs to individuals' pockets people are seeking less and less treatment, as this California survey (warning: pdf file) demonstrates. 38% of respondents said they avoided seeking medical care -- either preventive or curative -- because of health costs. That's up from 34% three years ago, and it's a problem. Failure to seek needed care increases health costs, adds to individual suffering, and can allow untreated contagious conditions to spread. Which gets us to...
4. Superbugs: A study of MRSA "superbug" infections published last year found a dramatic increase in occurrence among Chicago's urban poor. Crowded living conditions in jails and public housing could be a factor, according to the study's authors, and illegal tattoos may also be contributing to their spread. Now British hospitals are facing a new superbug called "Steno" that is at least as hard to treat as MRSA.
As new viruses mutate and spread, ready access to preventive and curative medicine becomes more critical. Superbugs would be a concern even if we had a fully functional health system. With the system we've got, the impact of new mutated pathogens could be serious -- and potentially catastrophic.
5. Virtual Health Care: Online healthcare holds great promise for the future - both as a way for people to manage their own health, and as a tool that links doctors and patients in a unified network. But even now, before "Health 2.0" is a reality, we're seeing a wave of health data losses and thefts. (They've become so common that I have a whole blog section devoted to privacy issues.)
The combination of electronic medical records, electronic prescriptions, and other online tools could result in new forms of crime -- with scary enough potential results that I'd rather not describe them in public. (Why serve as a think tank for the bad guys?) Virtual health could also cause substantial shifts in the kind of medical care people demand. While that might actually be a good thing, failure to plan for it could result in some temporary inconveniences.
6. Climate Change: Global warming could change the way we use medical care - and how much we need. As an Australian study found (and we summarized here), overall hospital admissions went up by 7% during heat waves, while mental health admissions went up by the same percentage -- and kidney-related admissions increased 17%. That adds up to a snapshot of medical conditions on a globally-warmed planet. Other changes, like a dramatic increase in the occurrence of mosquito-borne diseases, could also take place.
7. Radical self-redesign: 'Transhumanism' -- the movement to re-engineer the human body -- isn't a well-known term today. But the process is already underway, and it will gain momentum in the coming decades. Choosing our children's genetic characteristics, building computer technologies into our bodies, extending our lifespans, all of these will come into being in the coming years. This will raise a series of questions in fields like medical ethics and health financing, as we've discussed before.
What should we be allowed to do to ourselves and our children? Which changes should be paid for as a social right, and which are a personal choice? Will we create a 'two-tiered' race of human beings? These science-fiction questions will become increasingly concrete as we consider the health care reform issues of the coming century.