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Putting health, and care, in health care

By Bob Buckel | Published Saturday, November 16, 2013

America thinks and talks a lot about health care.

Lately, it seems that’s all we talk about.

We talk about Obama-care, websites, health insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, budgets and red tape, fraud and bureacracy.

Bob Buckel

Bob Buckel

We talk about amazing advances in medicine – laser technology, robotic surgery, scans and scopes and nuclear procedures. We talk about devices, gadgets and machines and the latest revolutionary pill.

But for all the time we spend talking about health care, we actually talk very little about the two most important components of the health care system.

Health, and care.

The United States would be a healthier place if we were less obsessed with medicine and more focused on health. We spend $8,608 per person – 17.2 percent of our gross domestic product – on medical care. With a life expectancy of 78.6 years, that ranks us 46th among developed nations in health care efficiency.

Most of the countries ahead of us are far less sophisticated when it comes to medicine. They’re just healthier – in part because they don’t live under the delusion that no matter what lifestyle decisions they make, there’s a pill or an operation that can fix it.

Americans seem to believe they can smoke, drink, overeat, under-sleep and sit around their whole lives and never pay a price. That’s simply not true. Ultimately, no amount of high-tech medical care can spare us from the consequences of our actions.

But we also don’t talk nearly enough about the “care” part of health care – the people who deliver it.

Behind all the high-tech gadgetry and technology, health care is people.

I know there’s money to be made there, and some people are in it for that reason. But I believe most of them aren’t.

From the brilliant surgeon to the housekeeper, most of the health care professionals I’ve met are in it for reasons that rise above financial.

Call it passion. Call it an addiction. Call it love.

Whatever you call it, there are things people in health care do every day that I wouldn’t do for any amount of money – things that involve bedpans and catheters, gloves and gowns and goggles.

And there are things I couldn’t do – making an incision, guiding a tube down someone’s throat, sawing open a sternum. Factor out the skill and knowledge involved – I just don’t think I have the guts to do that.

You mess up, someone dies. No do-overs. It’s an awesome, awful responsibility.

But when you interact with the health care system, those dazzling skills are seldom what you come to appreciate.

You learn to savor a smile, a gentle touch, a kind word. You’re amazed that the nurse who is taking care of half the people on the floor knows your name and cares about your comfort.

It’s people who put the care in health care.

Health care is a calling, a ministry. Those who work in geriatrics have to love old people. Those who work in pediatrics must love children. Unless the patients are anesthetized, you can’t fool them. They’ll see right through you.

And when they see love, you’ve promoted healing in a way no fancy gadget or pill could ever match.

It’s been my lot in recent months to be around the health care system a great deal – visiting friends and family, sitting in waiting rooms. I’ve seen this care firsthand, and I’m in awe.

It’s also been my privilege over the years to record the parting words of a few great old doctors as they were retiring – doctors who were at one time the only medical care in town. They delivered babies, made house calls and stitched wreck victims back together.

One told me he would have liked to go on practicing, but he had started to bury too many of his friends. He got too close, cared too much.

When I asked him how things had changed during his decades of practice, I’ll never forget his answer.

“Some of these young doctors today, they think medicine is a science,” he said. “It’s not. It’s an art – the art of healing.

“They want to go into a patient’s room and look at a chart, look at a computer, operate some instrument – they don’t want to look at the patient, touch him, talk to him, listen to him.

“There’s a reason Jesus laid his hands on people when he healed them. He didn’t have to do that, but he knew they needed it. You have to touch people.”

I’m happy to report that the medical profession today is doing really well on that score. Doctors, nurses, aides, therapists – from what I’ve seen the smile, the listening ear, the healing touch are alive and well.

Maybe we should talk about that a little more.

And whatever we do for health care, let’s not fix the part that isn’t broken.

Bob Buckel is editorial director of the Messenger.

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