Pollsters tell us that potential American voters see Al Gore as being "better" on the healthcare issue. I’m not sure what "better" means, but I think that voters believe that the Stiff Who Wants to be President will "give" us a better healthcare system than what currently exists. Al promises to provide less costly medical care. I have serious doubts, since the state is the problem now, and expanding the reach of government will only make things worse.
Before I point out why my claim is true, let me tell you about a nurse practitioner I recently saw for a checkup. She was pleasant and obviously knowledgeable about medicine and illness – and even wrote me a prescription for something to help lower my outrageous cholesterol levels. What she did not have, however, were the letters "M.D." after her name. Instead of spending four years in medical school, she spent two (at a prestigious university), and that was after having received a nursing undergraduate degree from an Ivy League university.
She is someone the state for years has told me is not qualified to attend to my health. According to the American Medical Association, which was organized in 1847 in order to combat homeopathy – or what medical doctors have called "quackery" – a nurse practitioner really is not qualified to make any medical diagnoses concerning my health. According to the medical "experts," I really need someone who has gone through many years of medical school and residency in order to have an accurate assessment of my health. That is patent nonsense.
Take emergency medicine, for example. The first person making a medical diagnosis at the scene of a serious automobile accident is not a doctor; it is usually someone who does not even have a college degree. Yet, countless lives have been saved by the quick actions taken by Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) who treat and stabilize accident victims. If he were in a serious car crash, would the person who demands an M.D. to diagnose his every sniffle refuse treatment from an EMT because he had not gone to medical school – even if it means he will die if he is not treated immediately? The answer is an obvious "no."
That doctors have all of the answers regarding one’s health is one of the Big Lies the profession has pushed on unwitting people for years. For example, wounded and ill soldiers in the War Between the States were often injured and killed by their own doctors, who erroneously gave castor oil, red pepper, and whiskey to treat dysentery.
Even worse was the insistence of medical doctors to prescribe the toxic calomel (mercurous chloride). Heavy doses made victims’ teeth and hair fall out as patients suffered greatly from the mercury poisoning. The writer Louisa May Alcott, who volunteered as a nurse in Washington, D.C., hospitals, was given calomel for typhoid fever. She lost most of her teeth and hair and had severe pains in her arms and back for the rest of her life.
We don’t have to go back to Lincoln’s war for tales of medical quackery. My sister was born prematurely in 1950 and immediately placed in an incubator, where she was given almost pure oxygen. At that time, it was believed that premature babies were more susceptible to blindness. Only later did doctors discover that their insistence of forcing near pure oxygen to preemies caused many babies to go blind. (My sister, I write thankfully, did not suffer that fate.) In fact, it was only by the 1930s that one could have reasonable assurance that a trip to the doctor would not make things worse.
In today’s world, accurate medical diagnoses often are not difficult to make. European pharmacists are permitted to make decisions that in this country only doctors (and some nurse practitioners) can make – and Europe is hardly a place where individuals are not burdened by excessive government regulation. The idea that the state should enforce laws that permit only people with more than four years of training in medical schools is laughable in these times.
That brings me back to my trip to the nurse practitioner. Unfortunately, while she is fully qualified and competent to treat most patients, she is not free to hang out her own shingle in this state. Instead, she must work under the constant supervision of an M.D. This is not necessarily to ensure quality treatment, but rather an attempt by the medical establishment to keep doctors’ pay at higher levels than they otherwise would have been.
"Yes," the doubter might say to me. "She may be able to tell you that you have a cold, but would you want her to perform heart surgery on you?" Such verbal tactics, of course, are part of the sophistry put out by the medical profession. Most doctors are also unable to perform heart surgery. If I need heart surgery, I will see a heart surgeon, not a nurse practitioner or even a general practitioner.
The marketplace equivalent of current medical regulations would be a requirement by the government that we have an extensively trained, certified mechanic change the oil in our cars. We laugh at such a prospect, but then completely permit ourselves to be fooled by a medical profession that insists we have the most costly care for our own good when the real goal is to keep doctors’ compensation at high levels.
When politicians say that they want to force down costs of health care, they usually mean either the enforcement of price controls or the imposition of what would amount to a government health maintenance organization (HMO). In fact, Gore has publicly condemned private HMOs, but has, in essence, called for government HMOs to replace them. The vast problems of the Canadian medical system eloquently bears out what happens to individuals when the government makes life and death decisions for them. The result, of course, is that the state will almost always choose death as the more viable alternative.
While it has been well documented how third party payments (mostly from the government) have made medical care prohibitively expensive for those who have neither health insurance nor free government care, the real problem with medicine is that the government regulates it. Like usual, the state and its supporters insist that all of this is done for our own protection. And like nearly every other government regulation forced upon us, a cursory investigation reveals otherwise.
William Anderson teaches economics at North Greenville College. Send him MAIL.
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.