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Do We Put A Price on Our Health?

After a recent dose of bad news, our columnist asks how much information is TOO much information.

What kind of idiot drives themselves to the ER at 4 o’ clock in the morning? I know that sounds like the beginning of a very lame joke, but when your insurance doesn’t cover joyrides in ambulances and you’re still paying for the fun-filled, $700 ride you took in August, you will ride a unicycle to the closest ER if necessary. You will hop if need be, or at the very least, you will drive yourself, which is exactly what I did toward the end of October.

The subtitle of this column could be "The Kidney Stone That Wouldn’t Die"—except kidney stones never die. They’re supposed to get flushed out of your body by copious fluids, exterminated by Terminex or zapped by a competent surgeon. I assumed mine had wandered out on its own, since I had been pain-free since August. But lo and behold, the same excruciating symptoms kicked in and off I went—again.

I would like to tell you this story has a fairytale ending, since Dr. Sam was kind enough to wield his magic laser and nuke the little pointy-edged freak. But there is no happy ending once the experts have peered inside your body and found it lacking. Or worse, found enlarged organs, dangerous deficiencies or proof positive you’re not as healthy as you thought you were. Cue the melancholy music and bring in Dr. Kevorkian.

Anytime you enter the ER, it’s safe to assume those in charge will run a battery of tests to determine what ails you. Some of the standard tests are blood and urine analysis and, if you’re in pain, a CAT scan is usually performed before they let loose with an opiate to ease your pain. Once you’ve been drugged and a prognosis has been made, you're either admitted to a delightfully decorated, mint-green room, or booted out with a raft of papers you are too loopy to read until the next day when, over a bracing cup of coffee, you peruse the papers and are stunned, nay, shocked to discover what your innards have REALLY been up to while you were going to the gym, eating groat clusters and pretending to be an aerobics instructor.

Hepatomegaly, anyone? Okay, who’s up for some atherosclerotic disease? No one? What about some degenerative changes of the osseous structures? Me neither! But instead of just balling up the radiology report and tossing it in the trash, I raced to the Internet to find out what all the medical terms really meant, and when I could expect all my limbs to fall off simultaneously. I’ve been depressed ever since.

Fast-forward to another morning and different reading material. I have put my angst on hold for the time being and am intrigued by a full-page ad that seems to run at least once a week in local newspapers. At the top of the page is a pair of oldsters with Chiclet-like choppers, blindingly white. They are deliriously happy because they've just spent close to $200 (each) to have their viscera photographed, analyzed and prettied-up for the holidays. Sidebars to the medical testing come-on are all glowing testimonials from satisfied customers who would have died, had they not ponied up the dough for a peek inside.

So here’s my question: Is ignorance bliss or does knowledge equal power? Would you rather know your liver is too big or, since it has been serving you well for five decades, do you just leave it to its own devices, which may or may not include off-track betting, lots of vodka and more degeneration? I decided to do an informal poll whilst at work, to see how many other people would rather bury their head in the sand. I got some surprising answers.

Since most patrons are used to seeing me around the library, they weren't too surprised to be ambushed and asked a lot of deeply personal questions, like “Who was your favorite Beatle?” and “Is it po-TAY-toe or po-TAH-toe?” Then I segued into the tough question, the hard-edged query: Do you want to know what your organs are up to or would you rather be oblivious to their chicanery?

The younger they were, the surer they were they wanted as much information as possible—but only if the tests were free. When you’re in your 20s, you don’t have a lot of loose change in your pockets, but you want to be well-informed. Several 4-year olds were queried—with their mother’s permission, of course—and they thought it sounded like fun, and wondered if there would be any “treats” involved. I assured them that excellent health was the best treat in the world, at which point they went back to playing with the trains.

I asked an older gent if he wanted to spring for an ultrasound test as a preventative and he waved me off. One woman, about my age, became irate. “Of course I’d want to know whether I have any risk factors! It’s ignorant NOT to know.” I wholeheartedly agreed with her. When I asked her how much she would pay for that knowledge, she told me she couldn’t afford it right now, then asked me to guide her to the 20 shelves of books allegedly written by James Patterson. That guy must write in his sleep!

It would seem that we place a dollar amount on how much information we want. If I were to set up a kiosk in the meeting room of the library and offer free preventative testing, the line of takers would probably snake all the way to LaVitas. But once folks are presented with a $200 fee for what might be some really bad news, they're not quite as eager to engage. In other words, knowledge is power as long as it’s free. If I have to pay for it, I’d rather not know what my pancreas has been up to lately.

I promise, on a stack of 54 James Patterson books (and those are the ones he “wrote” last week!), that this is the last column I devote to my innards. It is, after all, the holiday season!

Dr. Steven Horvitz December 03, 2012 at 12:55 PM
Well said Marsia. When it comes to your health, ignorance is not necessarily bliss. If everything was free, we would not necessarily value it, would we?? So there is more to health than just knowing your risks. You need to know what to do about it. Learning about your risk factors and planning how to lessen them is important. It is what I help people do 40 plus hours a week. But it does take a person motivated to change their unhealthy habits, or spending the money on tests is just not worthwhile.


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