Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Old Age
New topic 2019-04-09 16:04:33 description

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Redesigning Old Age

A friend of mine, treated as my contemporary but probably only sixty years old, was recently speaking of a club picnic he, unfortunately, wouldn't be able to attend. His mother was now living with him, and since she was 84, obviously neither of them could go to a picnic on a sailing vessel. The club committee, listening to this regret, chuckled that of course, we shouldn't expect him. My thoughts were somewhat different. Since I'm 94 myself, I was wondering if she was available for a date. And of course I am going to that picnic, why shouldn't I?

You can't scare me very much about the future scientific costs of medical care. But Insurance and administrative costs are something else of course. If the problem of foolish borrowing puts Medicare out of business, it's hard to see how that could be the fault of my profession, unless perhaps something or other undermines our traditional system of ethics.

Where the ethics thing comes in is in the obvious conclusion that we are spending a lot of money treating diseases we crusty old docs once wouldn't have thought were worth our time. We are fast approaching the point when substantially all the medical catastrophic costs are concentrated in the first year of life and the last year of life. Increased life expectancy is a matter of widening the interval between those two signposts. Medical care between those years consists of treating the disease successfully, preventing disease and managing complaints we once would have dismissed as 'that's nothing'. Even the cost of doing this kind of medical care should decline: patents should expire equipment should simplify treatment should become standardized or even routine. But we notice people won't leave us alone: our government has just spent $27 billion forcing office computers on doctors who don't see the need to be bothered with them. People persist in using our time to inject botulism toxin into wrinkles and to listen to complaints about how lonesome they are. That is to say, the public is beginning to insist on substituting their own view of what they want, for what doctors have traditionally thought was worth treating. This is an expensive way to enjoy the freedom of choice and it is only a matter of time before bureaucrats figure out the least obtrusive way to curtail it. Only when forces come to equilibrium will it be feasible to extrapolate future health costs.

What should appall us is the cost of paying for a progressively protracted retirement of so many unemployed people and the absolute impossibility of paying for it by continuing on our present funding path. Maybe that's what all this obesity means. Maybe people are trying to store up enough fat when they are forty, so they can go without eating from age sixty to ninety.

Originally published: Tuesday, June 23, 2009; most-recently modified: Thursday, May 02, 2019