Thursday, April 16, 2009

Health Care Continues Its Decline

Hospital layoffs are becoming more frequent as the number of patients seeking treatment in the U.S. health care system continues to sag. The layoffs are smaller than we saw in November and December, but they are everywhere, with hospital jobs being cut 50 and 100 at a time on almost a daily basis. Yesterday it was Spokane. The day before that, Boulder. Last week, a hospital in Madison, Wisconsin, had to apologize after it mistakenly called a nurse out of surgery to lay her off.

It is not that Americans are more healthy than they were a couple of years ago — they are, but only ever so slightly, and that is probably the result of less medical treatment, not the cause of it. Rather, it is a reflection of a growing reluctance to rely on commercial medicine as the first line of defense against illness.

Probably more than anything, it reflects the time pressure that people face these days. It may help to remember that medical practitioners have been pioneers in this regard. In the 1970s, physicians were notorious for having packed work schedules and rushing from one task to the next. Now seemingly everyone is that busy, and it perhaps should not be a surprise that after decades of hearing, “Get some rest, and drink plenty of water,” from a harried physician, that consumers would first try similar home remedies on their own initiative, thinking to save two or three hours on a trip to the doctor’s office.

Health care is all but recession-proof, making the cutbacks that much more vexing. The revenue lost now is probably not coming back after the recession is over. Health care, along with government and education, was tipped as one of the sectors to keep growing during the recession. This is the year when the aging U.S. population was supposed to provide the biggest boost to health care demand, with the peak of the baby boom reaching retirement age, so if health care revenue is not going up now, when will it?