This past week I had an experience familiar to many of you. I didn’t feel very well. My blood pressure remained too high, I was overly fatigued, and I had a noticeable headache. What to do? Call the doctor? Deny? Wait? I finally did get an emergency appointment, was checked over, tested, and found that my condition was not an immediate threat. Further tests, however, were arranged, a medication was prescribed, and my doctor gave me welcome assurance I need not worry. I cite this experience as a relatively minor and successful encounter with the medical care system, for which I am grateful.
But one of the more daunting challenges of aging especially is negotiating the labyrinth of the medical world, or what can be called “doctoring." For those with serious, life threatening illness, medical issues are all consuming: traveling to doctor’s visits; endless tests; picking up and managing medications; hospital stays; uncertain days and weeks among tests, diagnosis and treatment; in addition to a whole range of related financial concerns. And yet among all these challenges, we are usually grateful for the care we receive.
Every one of us dealing with any illness needs to come to terms with how much control we can maintain for ourselves and then how much control we simply need to submit to the often complex and high-stakes medical decisions we must mediate among our family and caretakers, our own ethical bearings, and with the team of doctors and specialists who we rely on for guidance and support.
The Covid 19 epidemic has heightened our awareness of the ambiguities and uncertainties about our health care systems and our response to them. You know well these types of questions: What do I need to do to be medically safe? Who can I rely on for trustworthy advice? What if I get deathly sick? So Covid becomes not just a medical issue, it has become an ever-present, wary mindset affecting most of our daily decisions and plans for the future. And it has been a relentless inconvenience and burden as well. We are all understandably anxious to be freed from its impact on our lives.
We will not likely ever be entirely rid of the emotional effect the epidemic has had on our lives these past couple of years and into the future. We often hear of the person who has survived a serious illness and attributes the experience as a reminder to be the more grateful for every new day in their lives, even as they continue to deal with the illness. Covid, too, has deepened awareness and gratitude for the preciousness of close, personal relationships and the freedoms so easily taken for granted: to socialize familiarly, (besides, of course, our Zoom and FaceTime); to eat in community; to hold a child and to hug each other; and to gather for rituals and celebration. These are not directly related to the medical profession, but are certainly the issues we have needed to “doctor” for ourselves.
Problems with our health care system are not currently considered to be a top national priority, but it is arguably the most pervasive issue we face in our daily lives. Because of my financial and social status I can feel assured I will receive adequate care when needed. And as I age this assurance is even more critical. In this post-Covid era, when it is widely acknowledged that countries with universal health care were better able to counter the epidemic, we need to support those who can imagine and implement an alternative to our present system that would be more equitable and economical. Call it whatever we like as long as it recognizes and implements our communal responsibility to assure adequate health care for all. And there are successful alternative models available for us to adapt.
I imagine doctoring one's own health care will be a challenge regardless of the systemic structure for its delivery. And establishing an equitable national system will be even more challenging, of course. But we know we must do better, and an awareness and commitment to its improvement is at least the place to start.