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August 16, 2022

By Gary A. Puckrein, PhD

By Gary Puckrein

Humans are pretty darn special — but you wouldn’t know it from looking at our healthcare system.

To understand just how incredibly unique humanity is, take a gander at the trove of data just released by the European Space Agency. Of almost two billion stars examined — just 2% of the 100 billion stars that make up the Milky Way galaxy — there’s only one, our sun, known to support sentient life. And if we cast our gaze further out in the universe, where there are 200 trillion stars, we also find no evidence that sentient life exists anywhere else but here on Earth. 

But while people may be unique — and thus uniquely valuable, when viewed through the lens of astronomy — they look downright disposable to many healthcare industry executives. All too often, those decision-makers believe their purpose is to manage financial risk, which entails rationing care, rather than actually saving and improving patients’ lives. Tragically, but not surprisingly, minority populations end up having their care rationed the most. That results in higher death rates from cancer and other diseases.

Just consider how our healthcare system obstructs tens of millions of patients — predominantly poor ones, and disproportionately people from minority communities — from obtaining certain surgeries and treatments. Almost 32 million people in the United States lack health insurance of any kind, meaning they’re often cut off from any sort of preventative or non-emergency care. This isn’t merely callous, but it’s also financially self-defeating, since untreated illnesses cause people’s health to spiral downwards, often leading to much more expensive emergency hospitalizations.

Even people who have insurance often face immense financial barriers to care — such as cost-sharing requirements that force patients to pay thousands of dollars out-of-pocket for surgeries or medicines. One in three Americans have skipped needed care because they couldn’t afford it.

The blame doesn’t just rest with C-suite executives obsessed with hitting their quarterly earnings targets. Health policymakers at the highest levels of government are similarly entranced by short-term financial savings — even if they come at the expense of patients’ health. 

For instance, Congress is on the verge of passing a Medicare overhaul that would reduce government reimbursements for advanced medicines. The drug pricing provisions would save the government about $164 billion over a decade — but cause investments in pharmaceutical research and development to plummet. That would result in 135 fewer new medicines coming to market over the next two decades, and a net loss of 331 million life years.

Astronomy teaches us that human life is uniquely valuable. We need our healthcare system to reflect that.