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The ongoing inflation crisis is making Americans even sicker — and just as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.
For more than two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has placed a devastating strain on America’s healthcare system and its patients – our family, friends and neighbors. Hospitals have reallocated resources to care only for patients with serious COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 emergencies. At the same time, patients are delaying seeing their doctors, largely frightened by the news’ portrayal of the pandemic.
WASHINGTON POST COLUMNIST SUGGESTS BIDEN SHOULD ALLOW MORE U.S. IMMIGRANTS TO ADJUST GROWING INFLATION
At the start of the pandemic, these answers might have been reasonable. But this approach has gone on for far too long, reinforced by fear and political posturing, with too many policymakers failing to come up with a strategy to safely return to more normal life.
The downstream effects have been disastrous for many Americans. Founding Father Benjamin Franklin once said, “Prevention is better than cure”. Not only that, but it is also a much cheaper form of health care delivery. But COVID-19 has diverted our attention from this common-sense strategy, and we are now paying the price for myopia.
Today, because of these policies, we have a huge backlog of patients seeking routine medical care. We can’t see patients fast enough.
On one side are those who have missed routine blood tests, medical tests, or simply been unable to receive care in the past two years. In fact, 1 in 5 Americans have delayed or been unable to receive medical care during the pandemic. Many suffered negative health consequences, including falling ill with preventable diseases or cancer that could have been caught earlier. Not only is it costing the healthcare system more, but more importantly, the human suffering is heartbreaking to see, especially because we could have avoided the suffering.
Equally troublesome is the large number of young and elderly patients who have not received preventive care, such as annual check-ups or routine vaccinations during the pandemic. Today, these patients still need preventive care, but they face even more barriers to receiving such care due to the backlog of patients and the lack of resources to “make up the difference”.
As COVID-19 numbers improved and the nation learned to live with the virus, we hoped to see a resurgence in preventive healthcare visits and the recreation of sacred patient-doctor relationships for those who had missed visits. at the clinic during the pandemic. Both groups of patients need care, and it seemed like the perfect time to seek them out. But progress in caring for all of these patients has been limited despite pent-up demand.
We hear about it on the news, but everyday Americans are feeling inflation at the kitchen table, in the grocery store line, and at the gas pump. Inflation is the biggest tax on the middle class in decades, and the concern is real. It’s no wonder that nearly 6 in 10 Americans think the economy is getting worse and more than a quarter think inflation is the most pressing problem facing the United States.
But what does inflation have to do with America’s health?
With consumer prices soaring 8.5% since last March, Americans are worried about the economy and are putting food on the table. Our brothers and sisters try to spend their money to make ends meet. This means there is less money left over to pay for medical care. Seeing the doctor for what seems like a non-emergency health issue, like a mild cough, stomach pain, or even a medication adjustment, becomes even more difficult when inflation eats away at our finances. There is simply less money left to pay for medical care. Faced with the financial pressure created by historic inflation, routine health care once again becomes secondary to daily struggles. In many ways, this is the same situation that occurred during the height of COVID-19, when all health care was focused on the virus.
The sad reality is that we see the toll of inflation in the emergency department every day. Where before patients would come to the clinic without a second thought to be reassured and cared for, patients now come to the emergency room when the pain becomes too intense or the symptoms too worrisome to ignore at home. The conversations with these patients are moving, and they show us as doctors that inflation is making Americans sicker. And though we doctors are called to heal, there is no prescription we can write in the emergency room to cure the disease of inflation.
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Some may see the impact of inflation on health care and advocate for larger government programs like “Medicare For All” or initiatives to put more Americans on traditional Medicaid. These are undoubtedly the wrong approaches. Attempting to pay for programs like this would require unrealistic and unsustainable tax hikes, compounding the financial strain on Americans by taking even more money away from them. If the government attempted to expand these programs without raising taxes for political expediency, it would have to print more money to pay for health care, an approach that would further aggravate inflation.
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Instead of growing government, we should tackle the inflation crisis while refocusing our health care system on patients, not programs. The only sustainable solution is to reinvent our health care system through genuine competition (for example, via price transparency) and the alignment of incentives among stakeholders.
By causing a backlog of care, inflation is crippling our healthcare system just as it was about to be rebuilt after the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. It costs our country and our health care system more money when we don’t have it, and it makes our fellow Americans sicker. We must fight inflation and improve health care delivery with proven solutions that align incentives, promote competition, and refocus care on the patient-physician relationship.
David N. Bernstein, MD, MBA, MEI is a Resident Physician at the Harvard Combined Orthopedic Residency Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and Boston Children’s Hospital.
Jonathan R. Crowe, MD, MPH, MSc, is a resident physician in the Mass General Brigham Neurology Residency Program at Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
CLICK HERE TO LEARN MORE ABOUT SEN. ROGER MARSHALL, MD