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Is U.S. cancer care “in crisis,” as the Institute of Medicine proclaims?

Americans love to fight, traditionally. All real Americans love the sting and clash of battle…When you, here, everyone of you, were kids, you all admired the champion marble player, the fastest runner, the toughest boxer, the big league ball players, and the All-American football players. Americans love a winner. Americans will not tolerate a loser.

General George S. Patton, Jr. was famous for his flamboyance and aggressiveness going on the attack, among other things. He was also known for a number of pithy quotes made throughout his lifetime, particularly during World War II, such as the one above in which he declared how much Americans love to fight. I sometimes wonder whether he was more correct in that assessment than he knew in that we seem to view almost everything through the lens of war and a crisis that calls for a war. In medicine, for instance, we have the “war on cancer” and the “war on obesity.” We have a propensity for likening problems and their solutions to war, where the goal is to destroy the enemy.

Similarly, but less dramatic (although only slightly so), we have various crises. Indeed, Americans seem to love to compare problems to crises as much as they love to compare them to war. Of course, the two are closely related, as a crisis of some sort is a necessary prelude to a war. We can argue about the definition of a “crisis,” but one thing is certain. No matter how one defines it the word “crisis” implies an urgent problem and further implies that something must be done now—or at least very soon—to prevent the catastrophic consequences of that problem, which usually involve a breakdown of a current system. It was with these thoughts in mind that I approached the Institute of Medicine (IOM) consensus report released last week, Delivering High-Quality Cancer Care: Charting a New Course for a System in Crisis. It’s a behemoth of a report, weighing in at 360 pages, and it does indeed paint a picture of some very serious problems in cancer care that should be addressed. It is subdued in that it doesn’t engage in that oh-so-American tendency to declare “war” on every problem, but is cancer care “in crisis”? Of that, I’m not so sure, but it’s definitely got problems. But, as I’ve said, the system’s had problems for a long time, as the IOM itself documented in its 1999 report Ensuring Quality of Cancer Care, which concluded that “for many Americans with cancer, there is a wide gulf between what could be construed as the ideal and the reality of their experience with cancer care.” The report also recommended steps to improve cancer care and the evidence base for cancer care, and to overcome barriers of access to high-quality cancer care. As the introduction to the current report states:
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