Paul Krugman argues in yesterday's NY Times that Patients Are Not Consumers (link is fixed now):
"How did it become normal, or for that matter even acceptable, to refer to medical patients as “consumers”? The relationship between patient and doctor used to be considered something special, almost sacred. Now politicians and supposed reformers talk about the act of receiving care as if it were no different from a commercial transaction, like buying a car — and their only complaint is that it isn’t commercial enough. What has gone wrong with us?
Medical care, after all, is an area in which crucial decisions — life and death decisions — must be made. Yet making such decisions intelligently requires a vast amount of specialized knowledge. Furthermore, those decisions often must be made under conditions in which the patient is incapacitated, under severe stress, or needs action immediately, with no time for discussion, let alone comparison shopping.
That’s why we have medical ethics. That’s why doctors have traditionally both been viewed as something special and been expected to behave according to higher standards than the average professional. There’s a reason we have TV series about heroic doctors, while we don’t have TV series about heroic middle managers.
The idea that all this can be reduced to money — that doctors are just “providers” selling services to health care “consumers” — is, well, sickening. And the prevalence of this kind of language is a sign that something has gone very wrong not just with this discussion, but with our society’s values."
Krugman is correct that patients are not consumers, but for a completely different reason that Krugman misses entirely: Almost 90% of health care costs are paid with "other people's money" (insurance companies, government and employers, see chart above, data here
), and only about 11% is paid "out of pocket" by patients. So patients are no longer the "consumers" of health care, and they haven't been for a long time, because the "consumer" paying almost the entire cost of medical care is a third party. Over time, the "consumer" paying the bill for health care services has gradually become third party payers, and the trends projected in the chart above indicate that it won't get any better in the future.
But Krugman seems to be arguing that regardless of who is paying for health care, "there’s something terribly wrong with the whole notion of patients as “consumers” and health care as simply a financial transaction." Krugman's further claims that “'Consumer-based' medicine has been a bust everywhere it has been tried."
Well, what about LASIK surgery, retail health clinics, concierge medicine, medical tourism and cosmetic surgery, to name just some of the successful "consumer-based" medical services?
When we think about soaring health care costs in the United States, isn't one of the main reasons precisely because patients have NOT been treated as consumers spending their own money? In that case, I think Krugman has it backwards. If the goal is to control health care costs, that will never happen until patients are treated like consumers.