Photo: © Katayama Kishin
In his best-selling book The Healing of America, veteran Washington Post foreign correspondent T.R. Reid traveled the world to discover how other countries approach healthcare—and what America could learn as we debate how to fix our own system.
Reid went around the world armed with two things. First, he had questions about how other countries are able to spend less money on healthcare than America, yet keep their citizens healthier than us. Second, he had a nagging shoulder injury—for which his American doctor recommended a costly invasive surgery.
Fritz Lenneman: How did you come up with the travelogue structure of the book?
T. R. Reid: Here's what happens in Britain: You call the doctor and say, "My daughter has an earache," which is pretty common in our family. About two hours later, she comes to your house and says: "Oh, I believe it's otitis media. Yeah, that's what it is, all right. I'll give her a penicillin jab." She gives her a shot of penicillin, and you know what happens? She walks out the door, there's no co-pay, there's no deductible, there's no bill, there's no fight with the insurance company, there's no nothing.
I think the book really started with when we lived overseas, but then if you just look at the data, all of the other developed democracies cover everybody and still spend about half as much as we do. How do they do that? That's what I set out to learn. And since I was going to be visiting doctors and hospitals around the world anyway, why not take my shoulder with me and see if someone could fix it?
FL: Instead of just getting a second opinion, get second opinions from around the world.
TRR: At one point, I was going to call the book, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth Opinion. We went through a lot of titles.
FL: How is your shoulder feeling these days?
TRR: My shoulder got a lot better. I have more movement and less pain. It doesn't hurt when I wake up in the morning. I will never have a golf swing again. I'm not going to do the artificial shoulder. I don't need it, and I'm going to live with the fact that I can't play golf again. I'm still skiing and snowboarding; that's what matters in Colorado. I still climb mountains. I have another hand to change lightbulbs with and stuff, so I have ended the pursuit of perfection. I'm not even sure I would have gotten perfection with the artificial shoulder. That was never clear.
FL: In the prologue to The Healing of America, you write, "Efforts to change the system tend to be derailed by arguments about 'big government' or 'free enterprise' or 'socialism'—and the essential moral question gets lost in the shouting." Did you know that the debate this year would be so heated?
TRR: It's very clear that this term "socialized medicine" is a really powerful phrase in American politics. And as you saw, one of the striking discoveries of my tour is that it's not all socialized medicine. Some countries don't even have Medicare; they do everything in the private sector. It just turns out there's a lot of stuff Americans know about healthcare overseas that's just wrong.
I strongly believe we could learn valuable lessons from healthcare systems in other countries. But first you have to deal with this ideological notion that it's all big government nanny state over there. It's not. And now I'm going around the country talking to people and they still say, "So why do you think socialized medicine is better?" I'm trying to tell you there are a lot of rich countries where it's not socialized medicine.