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Healthcare Industry, Heal Thyself

by Rick Blizzard

That a recent Gallup economic poll found healthcare costs cited as one of the most important financial problems facing American families today probably won't surprise many people -- which is a sad statement itself. Though the healthcare system's ills are no longer being condemned in presidential stump speeches, they're still hard to escape.

On a recent flight, I picked up a novel by Jonathan Kellerman, The Conspiracy Club. The book, which centers around a young staff psychologist in a Midwestern hospital, describes the hospital this way: "…the hospital had devolved from a healing place needing funds to treat patients to a large-scale municipal employer requiring patient fees to meet its staff payroll."

I remembered that passage a few days later as I was reading a Washington Post cover story, titled "Tax-Exempt Hospitals' Practices Challenged," which noted that 46 lawsuits in 22 states have been filed against non-profit hospitals accused of price-gouging uninsured patients. It struck me that concern about the cost and quality of healthcare is now a common theme in works of both fact and fiction.

That's only natural, given that Americans' lack of satisfaction with those issues only seems to be getting worse. Gallup's January 2005 Mood of the Nation poll* presented respondents with a list of 21 aspects of life in America and asked them to rate their level of satisfaction or dissatisfaction with each one. Healthcare tops the list when it comes to dissatisfaction. Nearly three-fourths (73%) of Americans are dissatisfied with "the availability of affordable healthcare." Sixty-five percent are dissatisfied with a related topic, "the Social Security and Medicare systems." "The quality of medical care in the nation" is also among the top 10 areas with the highest dissatisfaction, with 54% of Americans dissatisfied.

Dissatisfaction With Healthcare: A Continuing Trend

Poor evaluations of the nation's healthcare system are nothing new -- for the past five years, firm majorities of Americans have been dissatisfied with the availability of affordable healthcare and the Social Security and Medicare systems. Even the quality of healthcare in the nation, with which a slim majority (51%) was satisfied in 2002, has tipped further in the direction of dissatisfaction this year.

Bottom Line

Many employers are reducing benefits to cut costs, leaving more Americans faced with medical bills. While the war in Iraq and the economy dominate the news headlines, healthcare issues are ever-present in the background, and dissatisfaction with the availability of affordable healthcare will continue to fester until the next election cycle. All healthcare professionals should be embarrassed by the negative evaluations of what is supposed to be a mission-driven industry. Forty-six lawsuits is just the tip of the iceberg. It's time for the industry to act before courts and politicians impose a solution of their own.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,005 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Jan. 3-5, 2005. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

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