THE 4,900 PERCENT HUMAN MEDICAL MARKUP
by Todd Hartley
My little girl had surgery a couple of Tuesdays ago. Pretty major surgery, too. Over the past year or so, she’d developed a large lump near the base of her spine. Doctors did a biopsy and determined that it was cancerous, so the other week, they performed an operation to remove the tumor.
Our doctor said it was locally invasive but unlikely to spread to the rest of the body too quickly if we wanted to wait, but we were sure; we wanted that thing out of there right away. So the doctor recommended a new procedure that involved making a large incision and removing most of the tumor (“shelling it out,” as he said) and then placing chemotherapy beads under the skin to fight the remaining cancerous tissue.
I was surprised at how quickly everything moved, given what I’ve heard about medical care. Once my wife and I made our decision, it was less than two weeks before our little girl was scheduled, checked in, free of the 1-pound tumor, stitched up and back home again. The operation was done on an outpatient basis, and aside from some pain medications and instructions to take it easy, the only follow-up will be to have the stitches removed in a few days.
Now, I, like everyone else, have heard all the horror stories about out-of-control medical costs and cancer bankrupting families. I thought for sure, given how efficiently the system had moved in our case, this whole affair was going to cost us a pretty penny. But I was still shocked when I saw the bill.
It was about a thousand bucks. The estimate was $950. (Fifty bucks is pretty shocking when you’re a broke writer.)
Oh, I should probably mention at this point that my little girl is my dog, Tansy.
But right now, I would like a doctor or hospital administrator to explain to me why when I just emailed a renowned expert in the field of medical prices and asked him what a similar surgery would cost a human, he said, basically, “Not a quick or easy question. Price depends on a lot of things, but maybe $50,000, depending on what we are talking about.”
Any takers? Anyone want to explain that to me? I mean, sure, you’d expect human care to cost more, but 50 times as much? That seems a little ridiculous. And there are no costly follow-up visits, chemotherapy or radiation treatments. There are no physical-therapy sessions. My dog is done. She had the surgery. She’s got the chemotherapy beads. She’s going to have a big scar since it took 30 staples to close the incision, but once they’re gone, it’s case closed unless the cancer comes back.
And you know what? She’s doing awesome. She came out of the recovery room wagging her tail and just went right back to living like she never had cancer. Admittedly, she’s a little embarrassed right now because her shaved pink butt is out there for all the world to see, and her tail looks a little like a Chinese crested, the usual winner of world’s-ugliest-dog competitions. But in time, the fur will grow back, and even the physical scar will disappear from view.
A couple of days after the surgery, I left poor Tansy home and took our other dog, Piper, for a walk. When we got back, Piper was wet, so I put her in the yard before going inside. As I stepped through the door, Tansy, seeing me but not her friend, got a heartbroken look on her face and jumped up to wrap her front legs around me and give me a hug, which she doesn’t normally do.
I could sense that she thought I’d taken Piper to the vet and left her there to get her back cut open and her butt shaved, too, and she was worried about her. Tansy buried her head against my side and seemed genuinely bereft until she heard a scratching at the door and looked up to see Piper through the glass. At that point she lost interest in me and began wagging all over until I opened the door and let the joyous reunion commence after a 45-minute separation.
Anyway, that’s my shaggy-except-for-her-bare-ass dog story. I guess the moral is that if I get a tumor, I’m going to a vet instead of a doctor.
I imagine then I’ll be writing a column asking you doctors and hospital administrators to explain why I can’t.
Todd Hartley is still waiting for a decent response to his first question.