When I was doing research for a former book–my first sabbatical project, back in 2007– I came across data confirming the relationship between individual and social health. It turns out that countries with strong social safety nets have substantially fewer social ills–not simply less crime, but also less divorce, fewer unwed teenager mothers, etc.
I thought about that research when I read a fascinating article shared by a reader of this blog.The article from Harpers Magazine was written by the son of a doctor who’d practiced for most of his career in Great Britain’s National Health Service–the NHS–and it compared his observations of that system to the reality he encountered after moving to the United States.
When I moved to New York, many things seemed strange. Among them were the crutches I saw discarded on the street, leaning against the hunter-green fences of construction sites or on the steps of the public library where I had an office. It felt like finding evidence of miracles: the lame had risen up and walked. Later I learned that people were often expected to buy such items, rather than being given or lent them by a health provider. Once finished with them, they naturally enough threw them out. I connected this in my mind to the chronically ill people I saw living on the street, many with mobility issues—people who seemed to need care and weren’t getting it, like the woman nodding out on the corner in a wheelchair, or the man wearing nothing but a hospital gown, looking as if he’d been discharged from a psych ward straight into Tompkins Square Park.
As a freelancer, I bought my own insurance—my second-largest expense after rent. Despite spending hundreds of dollars a month, I still had to hand over something called a copay to be seen by a doctor. When I expressed shock at this fact, my American friends laughed bitterly. Step by step, I was initiated into this strange new health culture, so different from the one I was used to. Why did I need permission from the insurance company if my doctor thought a treatment was necessary? This was a medical decision, wasn’t it? In that first year, I went to see a physiotherapist and realized that he was shamelessly upselling me, trying to persuade me to embark on a complicated and expensive course of treatment that I didn’t need. Oddly, this disturbed me most of all. I was used to a system where there was no incentive to do such a thing, and it felt like a breach of trust. Deep inside, I was still the doctor’s kid, conditioned to see medical professionals as benevolent authorities.
I began to hear horror stories: the uninsured woman who slipped in a gym changing room, knocking herself unconscious, then woke up and tried her best to stop the ambulance from coming, as she couldn’t afford the cost; the young musician who’d tried to set his own broken arm using instructions from the internet. Everything seemed absurdly marked up ($1,830 for a pair of orthotic insoles?), and hovering over us all was the threat of medical bankruptcy. It was mind-bending to think that I was one serious illness away from losing my life savings. I contributed to GoFundMe campaigns and began to experience something new, a low-level background anxiety.
That reference to “low-level anxiety” triggered my recollection of that long-ago research, because it found that individuals’ feelings of personal safety have a marked and important effect on the health of the overall society. People who feel secure in their persons and prospects are less suspicious, more neighborly, and less likely to engage in risky or anti-social behaviors.
Recent unwarranted shootings–the elderly man who shot a teenager who rang his doorbell, the homeowner who responded with a hail of bullets to an unknown car in his driveway–point to the negative aspects of a society in which “low level anxieties” are widespread.
The Harpers article traces the history of America’s health care failure–how we got here. The paragraph that best explains just where “here” is, is the following:
The U.S. health care sector is massive. In 2020, it amounted to 19.7 percent of GDP. In the previous (pre-pandemic) year, that number was 17.6 percent. The United States spends more on health care than any other developed country, and not by a small amount: $12,318 per capita in 2021. In the rest of the developed world the average is under $6,000. What do we get for all this money? Lower life expectancy and higher infant mortality than almost all other developed nations. Despite the huge deployment of resources, the system is, by almost every metric, a dismal failure.
It isn’t just a failure that harms individuals. We Americans pay extra for the social dysfunction.