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Could Less Health Care Be Better for Our Health?


I've begun to doubt my belief that educating patients would help make our health system more efficient. I used to hope that Americans would become increasingly sophisticated at separating minor problems from major ones and would stop sweating the small stuff.  I could be diplomatic and say there's scant evidence that's happening.  In reality, I can find none.

Unsurprisingly, health marketers of all stripes are pushing us in the opposite direction.  Not only are the drug companies keeping the nightly network news programs afloat by advertising cures for newly discovered problems, but hospitals and disease groups are weighing in with a relentless message: if you feel uncomfortable or have any of the symptoms we're describing, consult your doctor (or visit our emergency room) at once'  Finally, the public health folks within the government pile on regularly, reporting that we're not getting as many mammograms or colonoscopies as we ought or that the many more of us should be taking cholesterol-reducing drugs.

Despite accumulating evidence that at least one-fifth of all health spending is useless, wasted or actually counterproductive; no one is helping us decide when less is better and how we could be healthier by actually having less contact with our health care system.  So it isn't particularly surprising that demand keeps rising, challenging out ability to pay the resulting bill.

Thanks to the Internet, we have an opportunity to know more about our health.  We're spending more on our health.  But we don't seem to be getting any healthier.

The great minds that have been so successful at convincing us about symptoms we should take seriously don't find the challenge of pinpointing symptoms we should not take seriously equally compelling.  There's only one simple rule: if it feels bad, get it treated.

One of my hobbies in recent years has been to put together a compact curriculum for retirement planning. I can lay out rules in less than a minute that provide the basis for a comfortable retirement.  On the other hand, those with other inclinations can make a career of it, immersing themselves in magazines, Web sites and cable channels that deal with this issue.  It may be that their approach is more sophisticated and yields a slightly better result.  But many people who need help lack the resources, starting with patience, to fully engage in and understand such detailed plans.  For them, my approach may be preferable.

In medicine, though, there is no such simple option.  Everything is complicated, which makes those involved feel smart and makes the rest of us reliant on them, a result that's good for both their egos and pocketbooks.

Ultimately, though, if the substantial amount we're spending on informing patients doesn't make them any healthier or the system any more efficient, there may be a case for coming up with some really simple, basic messages that people can quickly absorb and apply.

More Blog Posts by Jim Jaffe

author bio

Jim Jaffe, is a former Congressional staffer who worked on economic, tax and health policy issues for nearly two decades. After leaving the Hill, he led the external relations efforts for the Employee Benefits Research Institute and the Center for Advancing Health.  He currently writes for, a web discussion on public policy and politics and the Huffington Post.   

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Lifestyle and Prevention   Inside Healthcare   Jim Jaffe   Find Good Health Care  

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October 4, 2010 at 11:05 PM

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