Can universal health care and capitalism coexist? Yes, here’s how.

Eat what you kill.

Sounds like a mantra from a survival reality show, right? Akin to “eat or be eaten,” “kill or be killed.” It’s also a common reference to the prevailing business model in our American scarcity-minded, competition-driven, fee-for-service health care culture. How ironic, the application of these words to this profession. It was explained to me essentially as: “Every man for himself, and you’re a minion. You are expected to be ‘productive’ in this business to justify your compensation and contribute to the bottom line. We measure productivity by a number of patients seen and accompanying charges. Pull your own weight, or there will be consequences.”

Of course, from a capitalist business standpoint, this makes sense. I provide a service that others require. I should offer it widely, accommodate customer expectations and demands, expand my suite of offerings early and often, and charge for everything. The more I can get customers to consume and pay, the better off my business. I have a fundamental problem with this approach when the practice of medicine focuses on business first and patient care second. Nobody admits to this attitude, of course, it’s about patients first everybody says. Then my colleague suggests patient care improvement, or I express concern about conveyor belt medicine burning doctors out. Inevitably, the primary response from leadership is something along the lines of “that costs too much,” and “that’s the only way to keep the lights on.” I understand the math. I despise the premise.

Medicine and health care delivery should always transcend the detached, transactional and ruthless nature of the free market. Chris Ladd, a conservative thinker and writer, describes this idea eloquently. It occurred to me today, replying to Stacey Holley’s comment on my post about spending time with patients, that even those who profit from our flawed American system are also terminally distressed by it. Insurers, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies and their executives live in a constant state of fight-or-flight defensive posturing, fearing for their livelihoods in market share, revenue, solvency, and survival. How tragically ironic.

Personally, I have difficulty envisioning a single-payer, government-run health care program as the primary delivery system in the United States. Our culture is simply far too individualistic, too fundamentally ingrained with “every man for himself.” However, I think we can still work with the concept of universal health care, wherein all people have access to basic preventive and catastrophic care, regardless of income or status, without risk of bankruptcy. A strong argument can be made that the only entity who could or should be truly invested in the health and well-being of all of us, throughout our lifespan, is our government, particularly in the realms of prevention and health maintenance. We just need to loosen our societal grip on “that’s just how it works,” and “I need to get mine,” and allow ourselves to be led more by our collaborative, altruistic and humanitarian leanings. In my experience, diverse groups of intelligent and energetic people, working toward ambitious and aspirational goals, generate synergy. This kind of cooperation fosters passion, joy, inspired creativity, and magnificent innovation. Who knows what novel solutions we may invent, if we only put down our spears and work together? And isn’t that the hallmark of American ingenuity?

Medicine and health should be a heartening, collaborative, communal effort wherein we all do our best to help ourselves and each other reach our highest potential. We are better than our current system, in which truly everybody suffers more than necessary. I refuse to accept ‘Eat What You Kill’ as any kind of descriptor for my work or that of my colleagues. We can do better, imagine and create more for ourselves and one another, than this primitive notion. I know there’s a healthier mantra inside me somewhere …

What can you think of?

Catherine Cheng is an internal medicine physician who blogs at Healing Through Connection

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