Sunday, October 25, 2009

Upside down and backwards

I just finished watching Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story, a nice film about the extraordinary life and talents of Dr. Ben Carson, perhaps the world's leading pediatric neurosurgeon. His story is incredibly inspiring, to say the least. But the inspiration is not what is gnawing at me at the moment. The movie suggests that Dr. Carson has been handsomely, materially rewarded for his brilliant life's work; that was hardly a focal point of the movie. Yet, it occurred to me that perhaps doctors are not paid enough.

Oh, sure, many doctors in our society have nice homes and nice cars. They "rake in the big bucks," as Joe Six Pack might say. This is not the time and place for a full blown discussion on the matter, but there are a lot of doctors that will tell you it is getting harder and harder to make a nice living practicing medicine. The shortage of primary care doctors and nurses we keep hearing about in the discussion of health care is, my guess, due in part to salary. How much money do you have to make to repay $200,000 in student loans? The answer: a lot!

I recently heard a so-called "expert" on health care and insurance matters weighing in on the health care reform debate. With regard to insurance, he in essence said that it should not function with a profit element. I've heard others over the years suggest that doctors themselves make too much money, either stating outright or implying that they should work for the good of mankind.

The juxtaposition between the movie and some of the talk coming out of the health care debate struck me. Doctors don't make enough money. What could be more important than our health? If you're humanistic and you assign the highest value to your life on earth, one would suspect that your health -- and the health of others -- would be your highest value. After all, if you don't have a quality life, or life at all, you have nothing. It seems simplistically obvious, but doctors and other health care workers provide us the goods and services we should value most high. One would think, then, they we should pay the most or most generously reward those that serve our highest values. Our society is not like that, though.

We reward professional athletes, TV and movie stars and popular musicians most richly. We also talk about them more. I, frankly, had never heard of Dr. Carson and his amazing contributions (in God's name) to mankind. But I did hear that Madonna supposedly had an affair with A-Rod and that Jessica Simpson's dog was carried off by a coyote. All those folks I mentioned -- and probably their pets -- are worth more than just about any doctor you can name.

This suggests to me that entertainment is our highest value or at least a higher value than our physical and mental health. Tom Cruise makes $20Million for each bad movie he does, but bright kids don't go to medical school because they can't make enough money to pay back what it costs for the education.

Instead of socializing medicine, could we please socialize entertainment? Let's expand the paygrades and payscales of athletes and actors and actresses across the board. Pay them a comfortable wage for entertaining us and make entertainment more affordable. It seems more in line with the values we give lip service to if we were to pay a dollar to see a movie and $40 for a visit with my doctor rather than to pay $10 to see the movie and expect someone else to pick up the cost of the office visit.

There are things more immediately necessary to our well being than even medical care. Food, clothing and shelter are much more basic needs and they are universal. Yet, we have not taken the profit motive out of any of those. Do you think Gap would sell clothes if it were not allowed to profit by doing it? Would chain grocery stores stay in business if they were expected to operate at break-even levels? Would builders manufacturer homes to feel good about themselves? The answer to those questions is the same: no. Since we have no problem letting others make profit by providing these essentials, why do we complain about doctors or hospitals operating for profit?

Thankfully, there are still great people out there practicing medicine. Let's hope that we continue to reward them, perhaps more graciously than we do.

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