How American Health Care Killed My Father

After the needless death of his father, the author, a business executive, began a personal exploration of a health-care industry that for years has delivered poor service and irregular quality at astonishingly high cost. It is a system, he argues, that is not worth preserving in anything like its current form. And the health-care reform now being contemplated will not fix it. Here’s a radical solution to an agonizing problem.
Illustration by Mark Hooper

Almost two years ago, my father was killed by a hospital-borne infection in the intensive-care unit of a well-regarded nonprofit hospital in New York City. Dad had just turned 83, and he had a variety of the ailments common to men of his age. But he was still working on the day he walked into the hospital with pneumonia. Within 36 hours, he had developed sepsis. Over the next five weeks in the ICU, a wave of secondary infections, also acquired in the hospital, overwhelmed his defenses. My dad became a statistic—merely one of the roughly 100,000 Americans whose deaths are caused or influenced by infections picked up in hospitals. One hundred thousand deaths: more than double the number of people killed in car crashes, five times the number killed in homicides, 20 times the total number of our armed forces killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Another victim in a building American tragedy.

About a week after my father’s death, The New Yorker ran an article by Atul Gawande profiling the efforts of Dr. Peter Pronovost to reduce the incidence of fatal hospital-borne infections. Pronovost’s solution? A simple checklist of ICU protocols governing physician hand-washing and other basic sterilization procedures. Hospitals implementing Pronovost’s checklist had enjoyed almost instantaneous success, reducing hospital-infection rates by two-thirds within the first three months of its adoption. But many physicians rejected the checklist as an unnecessary and belittling bureaucratic intrusion, and many hospital executives were reluctant to push it on them. The story chronicled Pronovost’s travels around the country as he struggled to persuade hospitals to embrace his reform.

It was a heroic story, but to me, it was also deeply unsettling. How was it possible that Pronovost needed to beg hospitals to adopt an essentially cost-free idea that saved so many lives? Here’s an industry that loudly protests the high cost of liability insurance and the injustice of our tort system and yet needs extensive lobbying to embrace a simple technique to save up to 100,000 people.

And what about us—the patients? How does a nation that might close down a business for a single illness from a suspicious hamburger tolerate the carnage inflicted by our hospitals? And not just those 100,000 deaths. In April, a Wall Street Journal story suggested that blood clots following surgery or illness, the leading cause of preventable hospital deaths in the U.S., may kill nearly 200,000 patients per year. How did Americans learn to accept hundreds of thousands of deaths from minor medical mistakes as an inevitability?

My survivor’s grief has taken the form of an obsession with our health-care system. For more than a year, I’ve been reading as much as I can get my hands on, talking to doctors and patients, and asking a lot of questions.

Keeping Dad company in the hospital for five weeks had left me befuddled. How can a facility featuring state-of-the-art diagnostic equipment use less-sophisticated information technology than my local sushi bar? How can the ICU stress the importance of sterility when its trash is picked up once daily, and only after flowing onto the floor of a patient’s room? Considering the importance of a patient’s frame of mind to recovery, why are the rooms so cheerless and uncomfortable? In whose interest is the bizarre scheduling of hospital shifts, so that a five-week stay brings an endless string of new personnel assigned to a patient’s care? Why, in other words, has this technologically advanced hospital missed out on the revolution in quality control and customer service that has swept all other consumer-facing industries in the past two generations?

I’m a businessman, and in no sense a health-care expert. But the persistence of bad industry practices—from long lines at the doctor’s office to ever-rising prices to astonishing numbers of preventable deaths—seems beyond all normal logic, and must have an underlying cause. There needs to be a business reason why an industry, year in and year out, would be able to get away with poor customer service, unaffordable prices, and uneven results—a reason my father and so many others are unnecessarily killed.

Like every grieving family member, I looked for someone to blame for my father’s death. But my dad’s doctors weren’t incompetent—on the contrary, his hospital physicians were smart, thoughtful, and hard-working. Nor is he dead because of indifferent nursing—without exception, his nurses were dedicated and compassionate. Nor from financial limitations—he was a Medicare patient, and the issue of expense was never once raised. There were no greedy pharmaceutical companies, evil health insurers, or other popular villains in his particular tragedy.

Indeed, I suspect that our collective search for villains—for someone to blame—has distracted us and our political leaders from addressing the fundamental causes of our nation’s health-care crisis. All of the actors in health care—from doctors to insurers to pharmaceutical companies—work in a heavily regulated, massively subsidized industry full of structural distortions. They all want to serve patients well. But they also all behave rationally in response to the economic incentives those distortions create. Accidentally, but relentlessly, America has built a health-care system with incentives that inexorably generate terrible and perverse results. Incentives that emphasize health care over any other aspect of health and well-being. That emphasize treatment over prevention. That disguise true costs. That favor complexity, and discourage transparent competition based on price or quality. That result in a generational pyramid scheme rather than sustainable financing. And that—most important—remove consumers from our irreplaceable role as the ultimate ensurer of value.

These are the impersonal forces, I’ve come to believe, that explain why things have gone so badly wrong in health care, producing the national dilemma of runaway costs and poorly covered millions. The problems I’ve explored in the past year hardly count as breakthrough discoveries—health-care experts undoubtedly view all of them as old news. But some experts, it seems, have come to see many of these problems as inevitable in any health-care system—as conditions to be patched up, papered over, or worked around, but not problems to be solved.

That’s the premise behind today’s incremental approach to health-care reform. Though details of the legislation are still being negotiated, its principles are a reprise of previous reforms—addressing access to health care by expanding government aid to those without adequate insurance, while attempting to control rising costs through centrally administered initiatives. Some of the ideas now on the table may well be sensible in the context of our current system. But fundamentally, the “comprehensive” reform being contemplated merely cements in place the current system—insurance-based, employment-centered, administratively complex. It addresses the underlying causes of our health-care crisis only obliquely, if at all; indeed, by extending the current system to more people, it will likely increase the ultimate cost of true reform.

I’m a Democrat, and have long been concerned about America’s lack of a health safety net. But based on my own work experience, I also believe that unless we fix the problems at the foundation of our health system—largely problems of incentives—our reforms won’t do much good, and may do harm. To achieve maximum coverage at acceptable cost with acceptable quality, health care will need to become subject to the same forces that have boosted efficiency and value throughout the economy. We will need to reduce, rather than expand, the role of insurance; focus the government’s role exclusively on things that only government can do (protect the poor, cover us against true catastrophe, enforce safety standards, and ensure provider competition); overcome our addiction to Ponzi-scheme financing, hidden subsidies, manipulated prices, and undisclosed results; and rely more on ourselves, the consumers, as the ultimate guarantors of good service, reasonable prices, and sensible trade-offs between health-care spending and spending on all the other good things money can buy.

These ideas stand well outside the emerging political consensus about reform. So before exploring alternative policies, let’s reexamine our basic assumptions about health care—what it actually is, how it’s financed, its accountability to patients, and finally its relationship to the eternal laws of supply and demand. Everyone I know has at least one personal story about how screwed up our health-care system is; before spending (another) $1trillion or so on reform, we need a much clearer understanding of the causes of the problems we all experience.

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David Goldhill is the president and chief executive officer of the cable-television network GSN, and the author of Catastrophic Care: Why Everything We Think We Know About Health Care Is Wrong.

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