A Modest Proposal for Lowering the Cost of Health Care

Are you happy with the cost of health care? Maybe you are—maybe you’re one of those fortunate people who are employed by an organization that offers group coverage at a reasonable cost to employees.

If you’re one of the people who are not in this enviable position, you have probably opted for catastrophic coverage alone, because individual insurance for a family has now reached the point where few middle-class Americans can afford comprehensive coverage. Or maybe you’re one of the 17% of Americans who are uninsured.

So, why is health care so expensive? There are lots of opinions about this, and here are a few:

  • The insurance companies are charging too much because they are greedy
  • Doctors and hospitals are charging too much because (pick one) a) the cost of malpractice insurance is so high; b) insurance companies and/or Medicare/Medicaid don’t reimburse them enough; c) they are greedy
  • Medical technology and pharmaceuticals have become increasingly expensive, driving costs up
  • People are living longer, and adults age 65+ have the highest level of health care spending among all age groups, with the majority spent on the treatment of chronic disease and end-of-life issues
  • People are eating too much processed food and corn syrup, which has resulted in a huge upswing in obesity-related diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease

Whether or not you subscribe to any or all of these opinions, health care has become an increasingly contentious wrangle on the national scene, with government, business, the medical community, Teapartiers, liberals, the insurance industry, lobbyists—and, of course, lawyers—brawling in the streets (sometimes literally!).

So what are you going to do about it? Yes—YOU. It should be increasingly clear that the squabbling over health care costs and who is going to pay for them is not going to end any time soon. No one is going to swoop down like Superman and make everything better for us. There are too many opinions, too much divisiveness, and too much money at stake for us to imagine that much will be resolved in the foreseeable future.

But what can one person do to affect the situation? The answer is: one individual can do nothing to affect “the situation,” but we can all do something to make a difference to ourselves and our families. America was founded by individualists, people who wanted to change their lives for the better—people who were so unwilling to allow others to chart the course of their lives that they were willing to face a hostile wilderness and fight a few wars to achieve their goals. When it comes to health care, we must now think of ourselves as pioneers, mapping our own destination through virgin territory.

Fortunately, we now have many tools at our disposal that our ancestors lacked. (Louis and Clark would have made much better time if they had had GPS instead of Sacagawea.) The Internet allows us to research medical conditions, enabling us to make better health care decisions. Because we are highly motivated to find out everything about our own medical conditions, we can end up better informed than our doctors at times. There is a wealth of information online about diet, nutrition and exercise. It does require discretion to wade through all the claims and disinformation that is also online, but intelligent people go to reputable sources and ignore the rest.

Another development more recent than the Internet opens a new dimension of self-care that promises even more control over our own health: self-monitoring. The advent of mobile technology, combined with advances in sensor technology and software, has brought self-monitoring to the consumer market. We are now in the earliest stages of this development, but there’s a lot of exciting stuff going on:

Scanadu: this company, founded by Walter De Brouwer, is trying to create a real-life tricorder, like the ones used by Bones and The Doctor on various versions of “Star Trek.” Scanadu is seeking to develop a device that will scan the body for medical conditions without invading the body, without taking samples, without contacting the body, and potentially without cooperation from the patient. The Scanadu tricorder would put medical diagnostics directly into the hands of the consumer. It’s not here yet—but keep an eye out.

AirStrip: Airstrip has a mobile monitoring system that measures heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, and multiple other medical parameters, displaying the information on an iPhone. At present, this is available only for clinicians who are remotely monitoring hospitalized patients, but the technology can clearly be scaled for consumer use.

SweetBeat™: This iPhone app from SweetWater Health, LLC is designed to detect and monitor stress, and also has a relaxation tool to help users reduce stress. Using a compatible consumer heart monitor (available from many sources, including Wahoo! And 60Beat), SweetBeat actually monitors the nervous system, looking at heart rate variability (HRV). HRV is affected by many factors, but SweetBeat is tuned for stress, which is the underlying cause of many diseases. (Authorities such as Stanford University Medical School and Mayo Clinic say that 90% of diseases are caused by preventable stress). SweetBeat gives the user a real-time picture of what the autonomic nervous system is doing, and tools to quickly and effectively lower stress.

These are just a few of the things available (or soon-to-be-available) that help individuals monitor their health. It’s early days yet; we will be seeing a great deal more in the near future. Keep tuned, because health in the future will be more about preventive health to keep you out of the traditional health care system, and tools that allow you to detect health problems before they become critical (and expensive).

So here’s to the future. Here’s to your health. Here’s to your pocketbook.

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Download SweetBeat™, the iPhone stress management app: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/sweetbeat/id492588712?mt=8

Let us know what you think!