Author Archives: Howard Waitzkin

The Commodification of Health Care and the Search for a Universal Health Program in the United States

Oct 11, 2012, 9:00 AM, Posted by Howard Waitzkin

Howard Waitzkin, MD, PhD, is senior fellow at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Center for Health Policy at the University of New Mexico, as well as distinguished professor emeritus in the Department of Sociology, and clinical professor in the Department of Medicine. He is an alumnus of the RWJF Clinical Scholars Program. Waitzkin recently received the American Sociology Association Medical Sociology Section's 2012 Eliot Freidson Outstanding Publication Award for his new book, Medicine and Public Health at the End of Empire, from which the following blog post draws.

For better or worse, we treat health care in the United States as a commodity. We buy and sell it, and would-be patients who don’t have enough money to buy it must either rely on limited public assistance or go without care. In very real terms, it’s not just health care that we have turned into a commodity, it’s health itself, so it should come as no surprise that poor Americans die sooner than affluent ones, by an average of close to five years.

I observed this dynamic up close for the first time about 40 years ago, while working as a primary care practitioner in the clinic system of the United Farm Workers (UFW) Union in the 1970s (which, for a time, my mentors in the RWJF Clinical Scholars Program viewed as my required activity in clinical medicine). As I treated hard-working patients living in unhealthy circumstances, it was easy to conclude that one does not need to travel outside the United States to find the so-called “Third World.” As I observed with many of the patients I treated while working with the UFW, the living conditions of the poor contribute to ill health.

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