Health Care and Productivity, a National Cost

By Michael Ricciardelli
In Uncategorized
January 21, 2009
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Having just returned from my family physician (who stayed open past hours to see me), perhaps you will forgive me if, not feeling well myself, I dwell for a moment upon the cost of illness and inefficiency. Not as a matter of out of pocket cost, per se, but as a matter of macroeconomic cost–a roughshod (I am sick) calculus based upon diminished productivity and national opportunity cost: simply put, if I am busy being sick, I may well have to forego the productivity of work–or I may perform that work at a lesser level ( I suppose this post will tell).

In addition, if my family physician and his staff of two are grudgingly forced to devote numerous hours to a maddening array of paperwork and phone calls (“it gets worse every year”) in an attempt to navigate the various streams of insurance authorizations and payments (“some of it seems designed solely to frustrate and slow or prevent payment”) –he will not be seeing patients. Tomorrow, he will not be seeing patients; he will be trying to catch up on paperwork–as will his staff.

Perhaps then, when we consider that Health Care costs amount to 16% of the GDP, we might also consider that this number does not take into account the difficult to guage loss of national productivity. And although the sickness of one can be the work of another, the exchange does not seem to be an even one as it relates to national production: the doctor functioning, in a sense, as a support and enabler to the productivity of others. Having said that, if that doctor is unavailable (through lack of insurance or remoteness) to remedy the ills of the now unproductive (or the less productive) the nation suffers for it. If the doctor is needlessly enmeshed in tasks, inefficient and ancillary to patient treatment, the nation suffers for it.

One of the first national health lessons this country received came on the heels of World War I.

“With the United States’ entry into the battle, hundreds of thousands of military personnel were drafted and trained for combat. After the war was fought and won, statistics were released from the draft with disturbing data regarding fitness levels. It was found that one out of every three drafted individuals was unfit for combat and many of those drafted were highly unfit prior to military training. Government legislation was passed that ordered the improvement of physical education programs within the public schools.”

“During the period from September 1917 through November 1918, records show that 2,801,635 men were inducted into the Army. Out of the approximately 10,000,000 registered men, roughly 2,510,000 were examined by local draft boards. During the first 4 months of mobilization, roughly one in three men were rejected on physical grounds, but the rejection rate dropped to one in four during the following 8 months.” (p. 149)

Having put forth the effort to remedy such, we were better physically prepared when it came time to fight World War II. We will be fortunate if some cataclysmic event does not lead us now to some statistical reckoning of our “unfit” and “extremely unfit” as regards our national productivity.

I do not point this out as a means of suggesting that we need to actively prepare ourselves for some form of larger global military conflict. But perhaps in some ways the “event” has already occurred, and only the reckoning remains. In his inaugural address President Barack Obama entreated us:

“Let it be told to the future world … that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive…that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet (it).”

“America, in the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.”

He’s right. We must “come forth to meet it.” We cannot turn back and we cannot falter as we struggle to deliver this hard won gift of freedom to future generations. And it would be best if– as we brave these icy currents in this winter of our hardship– we were not sick. And if we were sick, that we all had doctors. And if we all had doctors, that they were not too busy filling out paperwork designed to frustrate them. As we learned through World War I, as a nation, we simply cannot afford to squander our physical and intellectual capital.

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One Response to “Health Care and Productivity, a National Cost”

  1. […] adage “a stitch in time saves nine” can sometimes seem modest. In addition, there is a national cost in lost productivity to consider. Earlier this year I wrote the following in regard to lost productivity through […]

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