National Toothache: U.S.’s Fifth World Health Care
by Grady Miller
Nov 6, 2011
HOLLYWOOD—According to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll, fully one-third of Americans are skipping dental care because of the high cost. As the Times reported this week, doctors are seeing people who haven’t visited a dentist since Clinton was president, and they are enduring toothaches for years.
I know the dental neglect score, because I toughed out a painful abscessed molar for much of a decade. When the good Dr. Fundaminsky extracted it, I felt sudden relief and also learned about the grave dangers posed by infected teeth: it’s not just the pain. Because all the blood flows through the gums on its voyage throughout the body, infected teeth can lead to organ damage and even death, when left untreated.
Hearing of those poor who have deprived themselves of medical care, I recall my own long healing process when my eyes slowly opened and I overcame a deeply ingrained aversion to seeking the proper care — an insane aversion reinforced by the grin-and-bear-it brand of American stoicism, a usually admirable trait that is in the medical context deplorable. In fact, as someone who suffered M.A.S. (Medical Avoidance Syndrome - my coinage), I believe it poses a major public health problem.
From 1992 to 2001, I resided in a Third World country and during that time I discovered how deprived I had been, handicapped by my American notions of health care and a peculiarly American dread of going to the doctor. While in my new country of residence, Mexico, I was insured by I.M.S.S. (the Mexican Social Security Institute), even as a foreigner. As an American, I didn’t have the foggiest concept of what this meant or know how to take advantage of this benefit until it was too late for my molar, so indoctrinated had I been by the United States’ dysfunctional health care system.
In Mexico, the government-run system of health care and hospitals, established in 1943 under President Avila Camacho, is open to most Mexican workers and other individuals who pay a yearly fee (around $100) based on a full-time minimum wage. A good six years passed before I knew enough to get some antibiotics from I.M.S.S. to alleviate an ear infection.
For me, the real mind-opener was simply living for the first time in a country where medical care is widely available without costing an arm and two legs, a country where the dictates of common medical sense reigned. I lived in a country where alarmed friends and co-workers would urge a visit to the doctor when symptoms of a dermatological malady had conspicuously crossed the line of my stoic American tolerance for an ailment without seeing a doctor. (It turned out to be shingles.) In Mexico, my whole fearful outlook toward medicine changed: if I had a complaint or just plain curiosity about a change observed in my body, for $20 or $30, I could do something about it. At the end of such visits, I would usually be granted a generous dose of the great cure-all, the peace of mind that comes from knowledge.
An underclass of many, far too many, Americans have been infected with the pernicious idea of monetized health care. The land of plenty has spawned a destructive culture of self-sacrifice. We shun the dentist because it may be costly and the toothache will eventually subside. Likewise, a host of other medical issues and routine check-ups are postponed for a payday that never comes for the unemployed and the working poor. An embarrassing number of Americans steel themselves to ignore the body’s warning signs and deny themselves necessary care. With the recession, the trend is even more prevalent. Another Kaiser Family Foundation survey last year revealed that one in three Americans reported problems in paying medical bills, and almost half reported somebody in their family skipping pills and postponing medical treatment because of the cost. Hey, you wouldn’t put off an oil change on your car, would you? It is a pathetic commentary on our culture that we take better care of our cars than our bodies.
As for my infected molar, let me be truthful. I avoided the dentist for years in both Mexico and California. In addition to having the Scottish allergy to untoward expenses, I share the common human trait of dreading and hating the dentist. My dumb.