Is health as profitable as sickness?
By Vanessa De La Rosa
What would happen if Americans took their health into their own hands? Could the health care system evolve, and is there a profit in doing so?
If science announced that a simple diet was the sure-fire way to not only prevent but arrest and reverse nearly all Americans’ chronic diseases, would you hip hooray? Of course we want to be healthy, but if a proven prevention to heart disease, obesity, erectile dysfunction, type II diabetes and most cancers were to magically appear, what would happen to the health care industry? Could the system disengage from decades of treating patients’ sicknesses and resolve to perpetuate wellness? A better question: Is there a profit in doing so? If there isn't, does our economy take priority over our health? Will it someday be possible for both to flourish?
It’s an awkward detail of the medical industry and overall American society: We eat and smoke our way to chronic illnesses, we shed big bucks to visit doctors who tell us we’re knocking on death’s door and then the pharmaceutical companies tell us which medications will keep our imminent death at bay. The disease is hardly ever cured, but managed in a state of limbo where we can go on surviving if we stay medicated for life. It makes me wonder, would our health really be as profitable as our sickness?
A recent film, "Forks Over Knives," harps the revelations of Caldwall Esselstyn Jr., M.D., and T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D., that a plant-based diet (rid of animal products) could be the prevention, treatment and cure for standard chronic health issues. It’s a blow to the face for many of us, who’ve been told for generations to drink our cow’s milk if we want strong bones and finish our meat if we want big muscles. But it’s a fad that’s gaining speed; former president Clinton recently announced his switch to a plant-strong diet. Whether you agree with this particular option or not, the film preaches a familiar truth: You can prevent many chronic diseases with a balanced diet and an active lifestyle.
The U.S. is sicker than any other industrialized country, despite paying the most in medical care. For the first time in U.S. history, this generation of children might not outlive its parents. Red meat, carbs, sugar, tobacco — we know, more or less, what is causing our chronic conditions and how to prevent their debilitating symptoms (which include shorter life spans). So then, why aren’t we Americans choosing to be healthier, and why isn't our economy investing in our health? The New England Journal of Medicine says that cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes are responsible for 70 percent of deaths and 75 percent of health care costs. Causes of these diseases include two of the most preventable: obesity and smoking. The Journal notes that our country’s health would fare much better with a system focused on prevention, based on the Fries’s model of “morbidity compression:”
- “the disease-free life span is extended through the prevention of disease complications and the symptom burden is compressed into a limited period preceding death. Thus, a prevention model is ideally suited to addressing chronic conditions that take decades to develop and then manifest as life-threatening and ultimately fatal exacerbations.”
If most Americans were to become healthy and the system more prevention-based, pharmaceutical companies and hospitals would undoubtedly suffer major losses, impacting the stock market and the overall economy. Funding would be dramatically rearranged, and if science confirmed the "Forks Over Knives" hypothesis (or anything similar), the meat and animal product industries would collapse. With the majority of America rid of chronic diseases, health insurance would no longer be a cause for worry — save for the cost of a broken arm or a bacterial infection. The number of insurance agents and brokers might dwindle as the industry was forced to evolve to its clients.
On the other hand, health care costs would fall. Increased longevity and quality of life might result in worlds of new productivity and growth. New markets might emerge, and even more opportunities for capitalism may arise. And, um, we’d be healthier.