Thursday, November 23, 2006

Should Health Care be a Right in the United States?

The United States is very unusual among the industrialized nations of the world, because we are the only country in that group which does not recognize access to health care as a fundamental right of citizenship. How can this be? Why have we evolved in a different direction?

Do you believe that health care should be a right in our country? I do. Some time ago, I submitted an essay to the NPR Radio series, "This I Believe" about my thoughts on this topic. So far, they have not chosen to broadcast my entry, so I include it here.

This I Believe

I was working outdoors in a small courtyard, next to a village school, as a volunteer doctor in El Salvador, when I met an old gentleman who had come to see me. He came accompanied by his daughter, who explained that her father had lost most of his hearing over the last several years, and they had not had the money to have him checked. I finished taking his history, and began my exam, only to find that both of his ears were completely blocked by massive amounts of ear wax. Although the job was difficult, I was finally able to get all of the wax removed, and the joy on his face testified to the miracle he had experienced of being able to hear again. In my lifetime of work as a family physician, I have had many other experiences where the lives of people have been fundamentally changed by receiving needed medical care. I have also seen people whose lives have been changed for the worse when needed care was not available.

I believe that in today’s modern United States, access to medical care must be considered a fundamental right. If the United States of America was founded today, this would be acknowledged in our constitution.

Our founders wrote in the Declaration of Independence:

“ that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

I believe that 1776 it did not occur to the signers of the Declaration to name medical care as a right, because it barely existed and was not very effective. Rich and poor Americans alike found themselves in the same boat. One in five children died before reaching a year of age, infections and accidents were the leading causes of mortality, and the average age of death was in the early 40s. Indeed, George Washington himself, the founder of our country, died at home from the complications of a strep throat.

Today, our country is much different place. As a family doctor, I have seen first hand how prompt treatment of illness and injury can have life saving and life changing consequences. I have seen how care of chronic illness can prevent disability and premature death, and how screening tests allow us to find and treat early illness to affect a cure. I have witnessed children who became seriously ill due to lack of available treatment or immunizations, and adults who have died from stroke or heart attack because of untreated hypertension. I have seen emergency rooms full of people in crisis with problems that should have been care for in the community long before. In all of these cases, the persons’ ability to exercise their right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” was taken away by the lack of needed health care.

The Declaration of Independence noted in 1776 that “Governments are instituted among Men” to secure our rights. I believe that health care has now become a basic right, and that it is now time for our government to secure this right for all of us to basic medical care.

This I Believe.

1 comment:

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