I have a colleague who loves to ask eager medical students whether they believe health care is a right or a privilege. It’s a question that many of them have not really thought about. I have enjoyed listening to their thoughtful answers as they work through the complexities that go along with a question like this one. Quite a few of them, after giving their best answer, ask my physician friend if they got the “right answer.” It makes me smile.
It doesn’t take a medical degree for you to figure out that the healthcare system is broken. It is a problem for which there is no easy fix. We know that the cost of healthcare is going up. We know that the health of Americans is not really improving. Medical knowledge and technology is expanding at a rate more rapid than ever before. How do we keep up? Who gets access to what? On top of all this we are facing a physician shortage in the near future.
Is healthcare a right? Does a patient who hasn’t taken care of themselves when they were younger have the right to access to expensive interventions to restore health later in life? Or is healthcare a privilege…something that you get to access because you have put yourself in a position to get affordable care. As a society we have already chosen to ensure access to almost all our children and pregnant women…but what about everyone else? For a nation that is in the top 3 countries in spending on healthcare we cover a significantly lower number of people with that huge dollar amount.
One of the best answers I heard from one young medical student was “healthcare is a right that we should treat like a privilege.” It’s one of the truest statements I have heard. Your health really is a privilege. Ideally we would cultivate a nation where our young people take care of themselves, engage in a healthy lifestyle and we promote preventative health and disease prevention. But what else can be done? I think we can each do our part. For me, it means talking to moms about promoting healthy behaviors not only for themselves but in their children. It means that I advocate for my patients and work to improve the system I work in. It means I support the after school program at my church so that young children around me can have access to healthy food and support for their education. It means supporting my community in efforts to improve public health.
Everyone should have access to good health. Does that mean healthcare is a right? Yes. Sure, how we improve the health of our society is a complex problem. But I believe that each of us can find a way to improve our own health and the health of those around us. Let’s start treating our health like what it is…a privilege.