Sunday, August 09, 2009

Gone to the Dogs....
A frequently heard remark about a poor physician is: "I wouldn't let him operate on my dog!" Well in the UK, sometimes the dogs have it better:
As a British dog, you get to choose (through an intermediary, I admit) your veterinarian. If you don’t like him, you can pick up your leash and go elsewhere, that very day if necessary. Any vet will see you straight away, there is no delay in such investigations as you may need, and treatment is immediate. There are no waiting lists for dogs, no operations postponed because something more important has come up, no appalling stories of dogs being made to wait for years because other dogs—or hamsters—come first.

The conditions in which you receive your treatment are much more pleasant than British humans have to endure. For one thing, there is no bureaucracy to be negotiated with the skill of a white-water canoeist; above all, the atmosphere is different. There is no tension, no feeling that one more patient will bring the whole system to the point of collapse, and all the staff go off with nervous breakdowns. In the waiting rooms, a perfect calm reigns; the patients’ relatives are not on the verge of hysteria, and do not suspect that the system is cheating their loved one, for economic reasons, of the treatment which he needs. The relatives are united by their concern for the welfare of each other’s loved one. They are not terrified that someone is getting more out of the system than they.

The latter is the fear that also haunts Americans, at least those Americans who think of justice as equality in actual, tangible benefits. That is the ideological driving force of health-care reform in America. Without manifest and undeniable inequalities, the whole question would generate no passion, only dull technical proposals and counter proposals, reported sporadically on the inside pages of newspapers. I have never seen an article on the way veterinary services are arranged in Britain: it is simply not a question.

Nevertheless, there is one drawback to the superior care British dogs receive by comparison with that of British humans: they have to pay for it, there and then. By contrast, British humans receive health care that is free at the point of delivery. Of course, some dogs have had the foresight to take out insurance, but others have to pay out of their savings. Nevertheless, the iron principle holds: cash on delivery.

But there is the animal equivalent of the NHS:
Strangely, no. This is not because there are no poor dogs; there are many. The fact is, however, that there is a charitable system of veterinary services, free at the point of delivery, for poor dogs, run by the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals, the PDSA. This is the dog’s safety net.

Honesty compels me to admit that the atmosphere in the PDSA rather resembles that in the National Health Service for British humans, and no dog would go there if he had the choice to go elsewhere. He has to wait and accept what he’s given; the attendants may be nice, or they may also be nasty, he has to take pot luck; and the other dogs who go there tend to be of a different type or breed, often of the fighting variety whose jaws once closed on, say, a human calf cannot be prised open except by decapitation. There is no denying that the PDSA is not as pleasant as private veterinary services; but even the most ferocious opponents of the National Health Service have not alleged that it fails to be better than nothing.

The point is made that once "equality of results" becomes the overall goal, human nature takes over and the incentive to go "above and beyond" is lost, with predictible results.
Of course, from the point of view of social justice as equality, it wouldn’t really matter whether the treatment meted out to dogs was good or bad, so long as it was equal. And, oddly enough, one of the things about the British National Health Service for human beings that has persuaded the British over its 60 years of existence that it is socially just is the difficulty and unpleasantness it throws in the way of patients, rich and poor alike: for equality has the connotation not only of justice, but of hardship and suffering. And, as everyone knows, it is easier to spread hardship equally than to disseminate blessings equally.

I hope I shall not be accused of undue asperity towards human nature when I suggest that the comparative efficiency and pleasantness of services for dogs by comparison with those for humans has something, indeed a great deal, to do with the exchange of money. This is not to say that it is only the commercial aspect of veterinary practice that makes it satisfactory: most vets genuinely like dogs at least as much as most doctors like people, and moreover they have a pride in professional standards that is independent of any monetary gain they might secure by maintaining them. But the fact that the money they receive might go elsewhere if they fail to satisfy surely gives a fillip to their resolve to satisfy.

And I mean no disrespect to the proper function of government when I say that government control, especially when highly centralized, can sap the will even of highly motivated people to do their best.
No one, therefore, would seriously expect the condition of dogs in Britain to improve if the government took over veterinary care, and laid down what treatment dogs could and could not receive.

I have asked the question before:floor or ceiling? Because if fairness, rather than improved health is the goal, then the NHS has failed on both counts:
Across the Channel, there is very little that can be said in favor of a health system which is the most ideologically egalitarian in the western world. It supposedly allots health care independently of the ability to pay, and solely on the basis of clinical need; but not only are differences in the health of the rich and poor in Britain among the greatest in the western world, they are as great as they were in 1948, when health care was de facto nationalized precisely to bring about equalization. There are parts of Glasgow that have almost Russian levels of premature male death. Britain’s hospitals have vastly higher rates of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (a measurement of the cleanliness of hospitals) than those of any other European country; and survival rates from cancer and cardiovascular disease are the lowest in the western world, and lower even than among the worst-off Americans.
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