A year ago, our lives were what we would now call normal. We planned our days around mundane things, like shopping for a stove. I spent my early mornings exploring the universe from my computer screen. A year ago, for instance, I was awestruck at an estimate by astronomers, appearing in a 2003 article in The Telegraph, that:
“There are 10 times more stars in the night sky than grains of sand in the world’s deserts and beaches, scientists say. Astronomers have worked out that there are 70 thousand million million million – or seven followed by 22 zeros – stars visible from the Earth through telescopes.”
This morning, I tried to read that article again. It is now hidden behind a paywall. Newspapers are attempting to survive a new reality in which the world’s population seems to think vetted information should be just as readily available—and free—as the opinions of “citizen journalists.” Competent journalists face the dissolution of their careers because we are unwilling to place sufficient value on their work to merit paying them for their time and expertise.
Yesterday, as I waited while emergency medical technicians and nurses and doctors looked after my wife, it occurred to me those people were working on Thanksgiving Day just like any other day. Their lives, too, have changed from a year earlier. Like journalism’s paywall, healthcare’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic is a reaction to an unplanned intrusion into our collective world. Journalist managers are attempting to cope with the public’s fickleness about the value and nature of verified information. Medical administrators are attempting to cope with unknowns of even greater and more immediate impact.
How would society react to “citizen healers” who offer to transport patients to alternative care clinics staffed by well-meaning people who, thanks to readily available information technology and medical equipment, compete with trained and vetted medical professionals? It’s not as far-fetched as it may sound. Rabid opponents of governmental “intrusion” into our lives might gladly grant such inadequately trained people authority to compete with medical professionals. Would we willingly take risks with our lives and the lives of loved ones to save the expenses of engaging trained and tested specialists? We’ve been perfectly willing to accept “journalists” without credentials to supply information critical to our decision-making. So why not opt to rely on WannaBeWebMD.com for healthcare?
During the last four months and then some, I have grown more and more appreciative of the competent medical professionals who treat my wife. Thinking back, I am extremely grateful for the doctors and nurses and technicians who have cared for me through extremely intrusive procedures like surgery and chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Healthcare is expensive; more expensive than it should be, in my opinion. But slashing healthcare costs by cutting corners would be even worse than relying on volunteer journalists to report on nuclear nonproliferation treaties.
But there is room for improvement, both in medicine and in journalism, that would cause me to feel better about paying more when necessary. Lately, for example, on several occasions I have had to intervene when technicians (and even nurses) attempted to draw blood from my wife’s right arm or to use that arm to measure her blood pressure. Despite “right arm reserved” notices on the walls and on charts, people rushing through their tasks have overlooked those instructions. I discovered, after the fact, blood draws were done on her right arm in the rehab facility where she presently is housed. Anecdotally, I seem to see more and more corrections printed in newspapers and in online news websites; again, rushing through the process of journalism seems to have led to mistakes that probably would not have been made had speed and cost control been given equal value.
I feel incompetent to investigate the issues I’ve raised here. But I am growing more willing every day to pay more to ensure competent people conduct investigations and report the results of their exploration. I don’t know that I’ll ever be willing to pay for individual subscriptions to The Telegraph, the Washington Post, the New York Times, etc., etc., but if those news sources would collectively determine a way to share paid access, I might pay for that. The same is true for healthcare information and medical services. I’d love to be able to go back and read the article that left me awestruck as I contemplated the size of the universe. But, now, as I think about paying for access, I wonder if I would ever have seen it had I been required to pay for it to start.
Solutions. We need lots and lots of solutions. It is a different world today, after all, than a year ago.