Liz Elsewhere

San Diego Union Tribune, August 5th, 2007
“Really sicko”
by Liz Mair Link to original source


Michael Moore's cure is worse than what ails American health care.

On June 22, Michael Moore's new film, "Sicko," debuted, and in the weeks since, buzz about the film has not died down.

Millions have seen the movie, renewed calls for socialized medicine in the United States have been made, and attention has been focused on the not-insubstantial failings of the American health care system, which are depicted grimly in Moore's documentary. But while the film's prompting of a debate over health care policy and its highlighting of the major failures of our own system are worthwhile, its depiction of systems of socialized medicine is far off-base. And I say that as someone who for 10 years was a patient of one of the systems given the most attention (and praise) in the film: Britain's National Health Service, or NHS.

"Sicko" depicts a perfect NHS, the answer to all of our prayers, equipped with pristine and beautiful hospitals, friendly doctors, helpful pharmacists and happy patients, all getting the care they need in a timely manner - and all for free. But the image is inaccurate and Americans should be careful not to fall for it when determining our own priorities when it comes to fixing health care in this country.

In creating “Sicko,” Moore must have overlooked some of the major news stories about the NHS from recent years. Stories such as one from the BBC stating that in September 2006 more than 6,000 patients in eastern England had to wait more than 20 weeks to begin treatment already prescribed by their doctors. Or a BBC story, also from 2006, noting that over 40,000 patients in Wales had to wait more than six months between being referred for, and actually having, an outpatient appointment. Or the recent London Times story regarding an admission, by Britain's Department of Health, that some patients will have to wait more than a year for treatment, and that 52 percent of hospital inpatients are currently waiting more than 18 weeks to receive treatment.

Or stories such as those widely publicized in 2006 and 2007 about cancer patients who were denied access to life-saving cancer drugs by the NHS, which had refused to make them available because they were not “cost-effective” (i.e., cheap).

Or they might even have included the spate of stories in 2005 about the prevalence of antibiotic-resistant MRSA infections being spread throughout the National Health Service due to poor hygiene in NHS hospitals, and which in 2005 were blamed for 20 percent of the 5,000 deaths occurring each year in British hospitals. Or maybe even one 2006 story from a Glasgow newspaper that indicated that despite the supposed wonders of the NHS, average life expectancy in one part of the city was just 53 years.

These are all stories readily found through a quick Google search, and yet utterly ignored in Moore's “assessment” of the relative quality of health care in the UK. They were disregarded, just like the stories of countless patients who have experienced some of the worst care in the world, courtesy of the NHS – like the 23-year-old with mild endometriosis who was told to have a full hysterectomy, because treating her illness with birth control pills or minor operations was “too expensive”; or the woman who was suicidal but was told it would take six months to get her to see a psychiatrist, despite the urgency of her condition.

Those are both stories from within my immediate circle of friends, and together with the stories publicly reported they indicate that no matter how great socialized medicine may sound, the best that it achieves is dishing up very poor care for all, as opposed to good care for all, or even most. And that, largely, is the result of bureaucrats working to cut costs, which has the same basic effect, only a more widespread one, of insurance companies looking to maximize profit (the major problem Moore identifies in our system).

Ultimately, we can have the debate about whether it is better to have a health system that prioritizes something basic, and quite poor, for everyone, or something good for the vast majority. But Moore is wrong to pretend that socialized medicine delivers real quality of care over and above what we see in America today. And he is wrong to portray Britain's National Health Service as an entity where quality of care, as opposed to budgets, always comes first.

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