30 November 2007

Over-Estimation of Biomedicine

One of the biggest things that has shown me that capitalism is failing is the health care system. But, just today, I thought that this may be just one of several possible issues. Obviously the current state of political affairs and capitalism have led to corruption, bureaucracy and profit motives to the bloating of the health care system into a disgustingly slobbery and ineffective entity. However, like every issue it is not always so simple. Indeed, I think that the failings of our health care system come down to (surprise surprise) cultural misunderstanding and lack of perspective.

I was at the county health department today with some refugee children to get vaccines. As simple as this task should be, it ended up being much more complicated because the nurses could not simply give the shots but needed signed letters of consent from each parent to allow the administering of this sort of care. The nurse said it was for legal reasons. Beyond corruption and bureaucracy, our health care system is seeing skyrocketing prices of care due to frivolous law suits brought against doctors and hospitals. This is why to administer simple vaccines the health department must cover its ass to a ridiculous extent with useless forms, raise costs to cover lawsuit settlements and often refuse care from many who are unable to afford care or produce necessary approval. It was nearly impossible to translate documents, track down parents, and once again pull the children out of school to get the forms that the department wanted. The 4 children I had brought were essentially denied care.

Cultural misunderstanding is the source of these lawsuits that are plaguing the health care system. If there's one thing that I have learned studying anthropology, it is that however much sense our cultural ways make, there are many more out there and some put our ways to shame. Our health care system focuses on a biomedical tradition. Indeed, alternate healing forms are not covered under federal and private programs. By biomedicine, I refer to those practices that are seen as common sense healing, antibiotics, viral vaccines, surgery etc. This is just one of many healing traditions that are found throughout the world. In truth, biomedicine is incredibly effective, though it should not assume the all-powerful role that it is achieving. Like any healing system, biomedicine is not 100% effective. Many have found peace and healing in treatments like acupuncture, meditation and religious healing where biomedicine has failed.

The problem arises in a misunderstanding of the role biomedicine has in the world. It is one of many systems none of which are completely effective and fail-proof. Most assume that biomedicine, given is foundation in "objective" science, is the most developed and logical treatments. It is accepted by many as the only way to heal. If one has an illness, one can go to a doctor and find a diagnoses and get treatment and it will be successful. When this fails malpractice suits are brought; every minute detail of treatment is analyzed to find THE error that caused harm or death. Perhaps biomedicine's biggest failing is the human element; no doctor can be perfect. But we must not forget that it is just one of many systems and its other failings may just be the limits of "objective" science. If we understand this, then we cannot blame doctors and bring lawsuits against the system, for its imperfections and limitations are inherent and are the risk we, and every other human in the world, takes when seeking healing from whatever source. Lawsuits are pointless and certainly do more harm that good. If indeed they console the hearts of grieving families, their consolation would be better found in an understanding of the cultural aspects of healing, that no single form (especially biomedicine) can offer pure healing. We must accept it as part of our world that people will die, sometimes prematurely, sometimes when it seems that so much more could have been done.

I now realize the true intricacies of the problems of the world. I see many economic and political issues, and many cultural issues. This observation at the county health clinic has shown me that the two are likely to be highly intertwined. Ah, the intricacies of the world!

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