I recently underwent a medical procedure called a Catheter Ablation, explained and described by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute as “a medical procedure used to treat some types of arrhythmia (ah-RITH-me-ah).” An arrhythmia, the Institute says, is “a problem with the rate or rhythm of the heartbeat.”
“During catheter ablation, a long, thin, flexible tube is put into a blood vessel in your arm, groin (upper thigh), or neck,” the explanation notes. “This tube is called an ablation catheter. It’s guided into your heart through the blood vessel. A special machine sends energy through the ablation catheter to your heart. The energy destroys small areas of heart tissue where abnormal heartbeats may cause an arrhythmia to start. Radiofrequency (RF) energy usually is used for catheter ablation. This type of energy uses radio waves to produce heat that destroys the heart tissue. Studies have shown that RF energy is safe and effective.”
This procedure had particular personal significance for me, since this heart condition is what tormented my father for more than twenty years. The last five years of his life in particular were miserable; I recall spending long hours with him, taking him to the hospital and to various doctor’s offices. When he was diagnosed with his arrhythmia in the 1960’s, there was nothing in the medical arsenal that could put his heart back in rhythm. It was difficult to watch.
Fast-forward to 2011. When I was taken into the operating room for the ablation, there were eleven healthcare workers in the room. The doctor who was in charge had not only his medical degree, but also a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering as well. During my subsequent overnight stay at the hospital, I could not avoid contemplating how it was the American medical system that made this possible. If America had adopted a socialist system of medicine in 1970, rather than a system at least partially rooted in the free market, would anyone have developed a catheter ablation? Would I have suffered the same fate as my father? Would my child be forced to watch?
Furthermore, would that system have prompted anyone to take the time and the effort necessary to get both a medical degree and a Ph.D.? As I lay on the table in the operating room, it was extremely apparent that my doctor was a very intelligent man, and I am certain that he could spend his time doing a lot of other things that would handsomely reward him. In that operating room, he was very much like the quarterback for a football team — in the end, all eyes were on him; in the end, he would receive the bulk of the credit for success, and the majority of the blame for failure. A man so smart, and so willing to put so much of himself on the line, could have certainly found alternative work outside of medicine if he chose to do so.
In the midst of those thoughts, however, thoughts which revolved around the intelligence and skill of the people involved, there was the inevitable intervention of the ogre hanging around all medical care — money. The day after the procedure I was visited by a nursing member of the staff whose sole function consisted of finding a pharmacy that carried a particular drug I had to take. The nurse explained to me that if I had a government health plan I could be paying up to $700.00. When she ascertained my health plan was private and she called around, she informed me that my share of the cost would be sixty dollars.
This nurse’s job was to find out if I could pay for the drug. I did not ask her, but I wondered what the hospital would have done if I told them I did not have the money to pay for the drug. When all was said and done, I received the care I did because the hospital was convinced my insurance company would pay for it. If I could not have arranged payment, there would have been no one waiting for me in the hospital operating room.
What struck me, as I am sure strikes all people who spend time in a hospital, is the tension between access to medical care and maintaining a system that promotes the very best professional quality. There are many on the conservative side who feel the government has gone overboard on the question of access. On the left, however, access is its focus, and the very concept has a lot of public and populist appeal. All of us, the left would contend, want to believe that when our neighbor is sick and needs medical care, the care he or she needs is not denied strictly out of consideration of the patient’s medical insurance or ability to pay.
Those on the right, however, balance their view toward access with a grasp of the reality that, under the current medical system, America quite literally has the capacity to go bankrupt. I have heard it said often enough that America might be the first great nation to collapse under the weight of its medical system. This statement is made by those who believe America will never give up on its dream of the best medical care for everyone. Unfortunately, the cost of medical care goes up continually more than the rate of inflation and the rate of wage increases for ordinary Americans.
I did not find an answer to the healthcare questions that haunt America during my brief stay. I did, however, find out one truth: If the government prevents the advancement of medicine though its policies, then access will become more and more irrelevant. My father had plenty of access to the medical system, after all, but they could do nothing for him compared to what was done for me.
There is a sick joke attributed to a now-deceased comedian named Brother Theodore. He supposedly said that there are two kinds of hospitals — the bad ones that kill you, and the good ones that let you die. Perhaps that was his vision of the future. The care I received was the best in the world. I hope and pray that whatever happens in the future during the healthcare debate, our politicians will keep the potential for greatness intact, no matter how tough the political struggle will be.