Thursday, April 1, 2010

Personal Responsibility and Health: Who Should Pay For Your Cheeseburgers?

Last year one of my "friends" on Facebook posted a status that infuriated me. It said "Why should I pay for health care for people who can't stop eating cheeseburgers from McDonald's?" I'm never one to downplay the importance of individual health behaviors like diet and exercise. In the three years since I met my husband he has gone from eating "less than one" (his words) serving of fruits/vegetables a day to at least four or five a day. And I'm sure that was the result of my gentle "nudging" because I was concerned for his health. However, this oversimplification that all acute or chronic illnesses are caused by "overweight people eating McDonald's" is incredibly ignorant. We cannot have a discussion about facilitators and barriers to good health outcomes without considering a person's environment, economic status, profession, family, peers, attitudes, beliefs, knowledge, etc. The list goes on.

There was an interesting article in The New York Times this week, No Matter What, We Pay for Others' Bad Habits, that explores this very issue of personal responsibility. The story had legs on Facebook and Twitter, so I wanted to incorporate it into the blog. And because I follow such thoughtful and interesting people online, I thought I'd include one of their quotes to demonstrate my point above (I removed her name in case she isn't interested in being a blog celebrity):
  • "The notion of personal responsibility becomes almost a moot point if we don't have an environment that supports our ability to responsibly make "the healthy choice". As the Institute of Medicine says, "It is unreasonable to expect that people will change their behavior easily when so many forces in the social, cultural, and physical environments conspire against such change".
Some thoughts:
  • Perhaps the hourly worker would like to make it to his healthy/yearly check-up at the doctor. However, because his job doesn't offer sick time since he's part-time, he could be fired for missing work. Therefore, he decides to miss his appointment, flu shot, blood pressure check, etc....because his paycheck is more important to his family.
  • Perhaps there are a large number of people in a lower socioeconomic bracket that eat McDonald's cheeseburgers (as my Facebook "friend" noted above)...but maybe that's because there are no Whole Foods or Trader Joe's Markets in their neighborhoods. And maybe they don't have a car to drive to one and/or the bus route doesn't pass those stores. And I know that those $1 burgers are a little less expensive than the $10 Rotisserie chicken that Whole Foods sells.
  • Perhaps a parent wants their child to walk or ride their bike to school for exercise, but their neighborhood isn't safe. What if there are no side walks?
  • And what about the impact of genetic and environmental factors in disease? A strong family history of cancer and heart disease cannot always be canceled out by eating vegetables and heading to the gym. And what about those people that are exposed to dangerous chemicals in their jobs. What about those that now suffer due to exposure to asbestos in their jobs before we knew how bad it was? Do they not deserve health care?
Again, I'm not downplaying personal responsibility. Patient compliance, healthy eating, and exercise are incredibly important. But let's not forget the complex systems which influence the health of individuals.

And to end with a Facebook "friend's" status that made me less angry: "I mean, seriously, if you're getting that angry cuz a fellow human being can now go to the 'effin doctor, you probably could use a few moments of self reflection..."

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