I was a young idealist, aspiring to contribute to a better world when I moved to Washington D.C. from the West Coast to pursue a career in International Development. I had just finished my BA in Health Psychology, when I received my acceptance letter into the Johns Hopkins School of International Studies Master’s Program to be part of the first cohort of health policy studies, funded by the Gates Foundation.
As our class grappled to figure out how countries and international organizations could best coordinate policies to work on and resolve increasingly global health issues, one important theme kept coming up time and again. Given the strong focus of our school on economics, the idea that markets could create the best resource allocation mechanism for just about every commodity, was prevailing. But even the most libertarian professors placed health in a very unique category. Healthcare has many positive externalities that cannot be quantified by market forces alone; and the assumptions inherent to a perfect functioning of a market fail in healthcare: mainly due to the asymmetry of information between those that supply and demand that makes healthcare allocation highly inefficient. Why? In a perfect market situation, the consumer would need to have sufficient knowledge to make his/her decisions as a consumer for efficiency and fair price stabilization. But in healthcare, the customer cannot make an educated decision, because those that supply, i.e. doctors and pharmacists, possess information we the consumer cannot fully understand or check. These factors made government regulations and the possibility of single buyer health system attractive if necessary.
As I graduated and started working at international institutions on population health control and disease prevention projects and policies, I came across the reality behind this theoretical concept. Capitalism and efficient, equitable healthcare did not seem to go hand in hand. Pharmaceutical companies that have no incentives to create medications that cure disease, but rather control symptoms; doctors that get financial incentives for recommending drugs that are often harmful; surgeons going for the most-invasive procedure for profit; hospitals overcharging 10 or 20-fold procedures from their real costs; these were just some of the many clear signs of systems that proved to be dysfunctional under scrutiny. In theory, regulation should have resolved these issues, but lobbying created perverse incentives even within government agencies. How could this be? Agencies that were supposed to impartially care for the health of their populations, were in deep conflict of interest, receiving financial incentives and being able to patent the very solutions that they were supposed to recommend or protect us from. If those weren’t enough, marketing and advertising of meds and health commodities just didn’t seem appropriate under any circumstances.
I quickly realized I was living and contributing to a world that was treating healthcare as a commodity and illness as a chance for profit. I experienced this frustration on a personal level. Stuck within a loop of doctors, I saw my health deteriorate as the list of medication for masking my symptoms increased, while the underlying condition worsened. After four years of pain and nearly losing the battle, I regained my health with simple lifestyle interventions that were far less costly and more effective, but not nearly as profitable.
I abandoned my career for all of the reasons above. The hypocrisy of ´health´care that was making us sicker, while profiting from our bankruptcies, was not something I wanted to be a part of. I promised to myself I’d dedicate my life to real health and wellness, and stay as far away from the industry as I could.
Until it came hunting me back. Hunting all of us back.
In a world we are currently living, our healthcare is in the hands of institutions that are guided by profit and power games. Agrobusiness that poisons our food, the food industry that creates packaged junk food substitutes to make us addicted, fat, and sick; pharmaceutical companies that ´come to our rescue´ to poison us further, and government institutions that are fully controlled by the above-mentioned corporations or in some cases benefit greatly in schemes that disguise collusion and corruption under the cute term of lobbying that we’ve all swallowed as a fact of life.
I ran away from that poisonous industry, as I took a dive into an all-together different world, where integrated health and wellness professionals treat people as humans beings, not a number; where body is seen as a powerful organism that is given a chance for self-healing; where interactions is based on trust, not fear.
As I finally felt myself fully shielded from the healthcare industry, the current crisis came along to bring back the haunting memories of the dysfunctional markets that kill millions at the cost of profit-making.
And yet, I am told that the institutions and specialists that are working on the crisis know what they are doing: after all they have dedicated their whole life to this. I am told to follow their instructions without questioning. But what am I supposed to do with the distrust that I’ve developed for these very institutions prior to this crisis… what about all the cancer-free breasts amputated for profit, research studies manipulated to sell us poisonous drugs, industries set up to keep us unhealthy and indebted? Am I supposed to all of a sudden trust these same institutions, controlled by the same corporations, with the same perverse interests?
I am told I am into conspiracy theories. Which gives me a flashback to my Communication 101 class at UCLA, when our professor showed us a few of Disney all-time favorites you and I grew up on. Only this time they ran slow motion, where we could not miss the despicable, horrendous art of marketing, the subliminal messages of death and sex that would keep us locked between fear of death and desire of the prohibited to keep us coming back as a perfect loyal consumer. From childhood on. If that’s not a conspiracy theory or manipulation at best, I am afraid I cannot come up with a better one.
So before placing me into a category, or judging my distrust, and before putting on the mask of fear and desperation, just remember that only a few months ago, you and I were fighting on the same side against the same institutions we have all of a sudden come to trust; we knew we were living in a world that had been manipulated and controlled to keep us incomplete and fearful in order for us to continue buying; buying products, buying information, buying into a way of life. A life where we are supposed to be contributors to their wealth and indoctrinated into the fable that capitalism gives us freedom to choose.