A Novel Path to Better Healthcare

Here’s a revolutionary idea: “Ask the patient.”

This suggestion was made recently by the President’s Council of Economic Advisors Chair Christina Romer in a speech on “The Great Credit Freeze and the U.S. Economy.” The talk was all about improving healthcare while slowing down the growth of its cost. We know we can’t reduce costs, Dr. Romer said; what we hope to do is reduce the rate of increase. And one way to contain healthcare costs might be to find out what the patient wants. Imagine.

This comment was not in direct response to a question, but could well have been. Dr. Romer was asked, by more than one audience member, about how to address excessive expenditures at the beginning and end of life. A grossly disproportionate share of costs, she conceded, “are spent on the last six months of life. And one thing we’re not doing enough of is letting patients express what they want.”

If the issue were not so grim and sorrowful it would call for a “Well, duh.”

It would be hard to find many people who would say they’d like their last few days on this planet to be spent semi-conscious or in pain and distress, hooked up to a tangle of wires and tubes in a blue-lit hospital room. But this is in fact the system we have created: we focus on prolongation of life without regard to quality, we aid and abet doctors who equate death with failure, we never talk about our own mortality as if in silence we can become immortal. Most of us would choose to die at home, properly medicated for pain and surrounded by our loved ones; most of us will die in an institution

Audience members had a wide assortment of questions, and Dr. Romer had plenty more to say. But finding out what the patient wants, and acting accordingly, is surely one excellent path towards better care – and even contained cost growth, and everyone in America could begin that process today.

It is an easy solution, even if only a small, partial solution, to this piece of the muddled medi-puzzle of our healthcare system: talk. Tell your doctors, caregivers, loved ones what you do or don’t want. Write it down. Use the forms universally available (Advance Directives, POLST, others.) You might even wind up with what you want in your final days. Christina Romer is on your side.

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