The Cost of Being Sick in America

March 16, 2018
KrisEmily McCrory, MD

A recent wave of sickness in this doctor's family made her realize how inconvenient it is for many people in this country to be ill.

Over the past few weeks, illness has run rampant in my house. Three times, I have brought my husband to the emergency room, sat for hours in a busy waiting room, and then with him as he was on an uncomfortable stretcher.

Despite our diligence in getting our annual flu vaccine, he came down with influenza A and passed it on to two of our four children. We are rarely this ill and trips the hospital are uncommon. Our experience over the past two weeks has shown me how fortunate my family is and how quickly an unexpected illness can put people’s precariously balanced lives into turmoil.

The first endeavor to the emergency room came two days after my husband had returned to work following his paternity leave. A day of non-stop vomiting of anything he put into his body forced me to bring him in for IV fluids. We have multiple hospitals to choose from and I chose poorly.

For two hours we sat in the waiting room surrounded by other ill patients waiting for the overworked triage nurse to take the initial history and vitals. Then we waited for another hour despite his tachycardia and mild hypotension. Once we finally saw the doctor and received two liters of fluid and anti-emetics, my husband felt like a human being again. We headed home, not realizing that he was taking home a small viral friend with him.

Two days later the cough, fever, body aches, and more vomiting racked his body. We went to the emergency room and were eventually admitted, my husband missed the remainder of work that week.

When he got home two days later, with strict instructions to remain out of work, he lay exhausted on the couch, desperately wanting to help out around the house and with the care of our four children. Within 24 hours, our two teenagers had flu-like symptoms and I was left to tend the house, care for our two younger children, and get through work by myself. Soon, I had my husband back in the emergency room for pneumonia.

Despite the immense strain I felt, I knew I was actually lucky. I had family nearby that could help care for my children, while I sat with my husband at the hospital. My generous colleagues at work helped cover some of my duties. My health insurance covered the vast majority of the costs of the emergency room, admission, and medication. I had sufficient income to cover the co-pays. I did not need to choose between feeding my family or my husband’s medical care. I had the ability to transport him to the hospital.

Despite the challenge, I could in fact take care of my family in this time of illness and not be on the brink of losing my home or my job. That may sound ridiculous at first, but for so many individuals in this country, their reality is shift work with no paid sick leave. If they are not at work, they are not paid.

Since so many are barely living paycheck to paycheck, any loss of wages can create a nightmare where they cannot feed their children, lose their homes, and have the inability to provide basic support to their families. In a country that is as wealthy as we are, it is a disgrace that something like an acute, finite illness can devastate a family. This does not even begin to speak to the challenge of families trying to cope with chronic illnesses.

For so many, it is not merely about having enough money for necessary health care, but attaining true health care access. They lack time to get the care they need. The costs of treatments create barriers to appropriate or timely care. Inflexibility with employment means potential loss of work if they need to take time off for illness. The need to work multiple jobs to make ends meet forces inadequate sleep and rest.

The stress of even a minor illness plagues families. We desperately need to look to developing a system that truly helps and cares for people. This country needs to be a compassionate place where patients get the appropriate, necessary care without the burden of skyrocketing costs or loss of livelihood. A place where they can get well.