For all of the research, technological breakthroughs and pharmaceutical advances, health care isn't living up to its potential in the United States.
According to a new report by the National Academy of Science's Institute of Medicine, part of the problem is a failure to communicate. Doctors don't talk to one another. Medical records are not easily accessible. These issues compromise patient care.
The problem also lies in how health-care services are delivered. Some medical issues could be addressed by e-mail or over the telephone, but many physicians require office visits, some of which need to be arranged months in advance.
Insurance companies bear some responsibility in that they offer few incentives to provide quality, cost-effective care.
All of these factors suggest that the health-care industry, advocates and consumers themselves need to put patients first on their list of priorities.
The report illustrates that the health-care system needs to devote more care and attention to the flow of information regarding patients and patient care. Patients should not be expected to ferry complicated messages between their doctors. Instead, the physicians should contact one another directly.
Physicians need to do more to keep updated on medical advances, which then should be incorporated into their medical practices. Processes need to be established that encourage the best practice and reduce errors, the report said.
Patients and their loved ones need to educate themselves about their respective conditions. Never has so much medical information been made available to the public through the Internet and nonprofit organizations established to conduct research or educate the public about certain diseases or conditions.
While some doctors and health-care professionals may operate under the philosophy that a little information can be dangerous, many physicians not only encourage their patients to educate themselves about their particular condition and treatments, they welcome their challenging questions.
The report, titled "Quality Chasm," suggests a disconnect between the wealth of resources, medicines and treatments available to the health-care industry and the quality of patient care.
A diagnostic tool that can identify a certain disease or condition does a patient no immediate good if he or she must wait months for a non-urgent appointment.
What good are certain proven pharmaceuticals if practitioners don't prescribe them to their patients? Case in point: Researchers over the past decade have proven that beta blockers and ACE inhibitors improve a heart attack victim's chances for survival, but about half of all heart-attack victims who receive care are not given the medication.
This report does not suggest radical changes to the way health care is provided in the United States. But it does demonstrate that health care must become more patient centered. It should be understood that this report should not be viewed as an indictment of all practitioners. Many health-care providers are diligent about ongoing education, shaping their practices to put patients first and incorporating medical advances into their procedures. But another Institute of Medicine report pointed out an alarming 98,000 deaths annually due to medical errors, indicating there is vast room for improvement.
Not so long ago, physicians didn't have the many tools today's physicians possess, such as the benefit of long-term research, pharmaceuticals and technological advances. Lacking all the trappings of modern medicine, patient care came first.
Today's health-care system can and should provide patients the best of both worlds: providing service around patients' needs while availing itself to state-of-the-art treatments and technology.