Dave Barry

State of health care -- and my forefinger

Final installment of a three-part series.

Since I stopped writing my weekly column for The Miami Herald, people are always asking me: ``How do you like retirement?'' I explain to these people that I am NOT retired: I am doing lots of things outside of the public view, much like Vice President Biden. One of my main activities has been writing humor essays, which have just been published in the form of my new book, I'll Mature When I'm Dead. Here is an excerpt from one of those essays, a futile attempt to explain the U.S. health-care system.


Wash Your Hands After Reading This

When we analyze the American health-care system, we see that the most important questions facing us, as a nation, are:

How should we pay for health care?

Who should make our health-care decisions?

What is this weird little skin thing on my right forefinger that won't go away?

I think we can all agree that our highest priority, as a nation, is my weird forefinger thing. So far, I've been following the standard course of treatment recommended for diseases in general by the American Academy of Physicians With Framed Latin Diplomas, namely, picking fretfully at the affected area. But after months of fretful picking without any forefinger improvement, I'm thinking of breaking down and going to see the skin doctor.

I'm reluctant to go see any doctor, but especially my skin doctor. I went to her a few years ago when I contracted a rare and very serious disease consisting of cancer combined with smallpox, leprosy, cholera, heart failure and the bubonic plague. At least that was my diagnosis based on the symptoms, which consisted of: pain. But it turned out, according to my skin doctor, that what I actually had was ``shingles,'' a disease that gets its name from the fact that it is transmitted by roofers, which, as a resident of Florida, I am exposed to constantly.

The skin doctor gave me medicine for my shingles, but she also told me that I should (1) eat a lot of broccoli, and (2) not drink alcohol. I asked her if she meant I should not drink alcohol while I had shingles, and she said, no, her medical opinion was that people in general should never, ever drink any alcohol. At all.

Well, I may not have a framed Latin diploma, but I know crazy talk when I hear it. Alcohol has been an important part of the human diet for thousands of years. The Bible is filled with references to people drinking alcohol, such as this quotation from the Book of Effusions, Chapter Eight, Verse Six, Row 7:

And yea, they did smite the Phalanges, and to celebrate they heldeth a party and they dranketh some alcohol in the form of wine, and it was good. So they also diddeth some shooters. Then they saideth, ``Hey, let us doeth some more smiting.''

Oh, I'm not saying that alcohol is perfect. It has caused its share of problems. Russia is only one example. But throughout history, alcohol has shown that, used correctly, it can be a powerful force for good. I personally have won many crucial arguments at parties because alcohol gave me the conviction to keep arguing until my opponent had no choice but to leave, even if he or she was the host. And consider this: If there were no alcohol, there would be no straight white men dancing at weddings. There also would be no such sport as ``luge.'' And virtually none of the scientific discoveries concerning what happens when you launch bottle rockets from a set of human buttocks would ever have been made. Is that the kind of world you want to live in? Me neither.

I have, however, been eating more broccoli.

But getting back to the American health-care situation: It is bad. Consider the following disturbing facts:

FACT: American health care is a $2.5-trillion-per-year industry.

FACT: And yet it cannot make a hospital gown that completely covers your ass.

FACT: This year, 253 million Americans will seek emergency medical treatment.

FACT: If you have to go to the Emergency Room, ALL of these Americans will be waiting in line ahead of you.

FACT: And the waiting area will have a TV playing episodes of Judge Judy at the volume of the Daytona 500.

FACT: On average, Canadians live 1.7 years longer than Americans.

FACT: But because they live in Canada, it feels more like 12 years.

FACT: And because they use the metric system, this is actually the equivalent of 15.3 American years.

FACT: The male hammerhead bat, which attracts females by making a honking sound, has a larynx that takes up more than half of its body.

Clearly, we have a crisis on our hands. The question is: What should we do about it? To answer that question, we must first figure out how we got into this mess in the first place. So let's review:



In prehistoric times, people believed that sickness was caused by angry spirits invading a person's body. To get rid of these spirits, sick people went to see primitive medical specialists called ``shamans,'' who would ``cure'' them by sacrificing a goat. Of course this was all a bunch of superstitious nonsense. We now know, thanks to modern medical science, that the shaman was actually making things worse, because when he sacrificed the goat he released the goat's spirit, which was (Who can blame it?) really angry, and which would proceed to invade some totally innocent human. Scientists now believe this is what happened to Nick Nolte.

The first big breakthrough in medical knowledge was made by the ancient Egyptians, who discovered that the human body contained organs such as the pancreas, and if a person became sick, and you took out one or more of these organs, the person would get better. Or not. But either way you could charge the person, or his heirs, money. This was the beginning of surgery.

The next big players in medicine were the ancient Greeks, who believed that disease was caused by an imbalance of the body's four ``humours'': blood, bile, phlegm and sarcasm. This made for some really disgusting treatments, especially if you were diagnosed as being phlegm-deficient, in which case you had to have a transfusion from a compatible loogie donor.

The greatest Greek physician of all was Hippocrates, who is often called ``the father of modern medicine'' because he invented the concept that remains the foundation of all medical care as we know it today: the receptionist. Prior to this invention, when patients came to see the doctor, the doctor had to actually see them, which, as you can imagine, took up a lot of his valuable time because they were always nattering on and on about being sick. But all of a sudden, thanks to Hippocrates, incoming patients could be intercepted by a receptionist, who would (1) tell them to take a seat, and then (2) avoid making eye contact with them for the rest of the afternoon. This breakthrough meant that a single doctor could schedule as many as 375 appointments per hour, which is the system we still use today.

Reprinted from I'll Mature When I'm Dead by Dave Barry by arrangement with G.P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., Copyright (c) 2010 by Dave Barry.

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