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Measuring health guesses

Don't assume the healthcare industry has it all right

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The staggering numbers so typically associated these days with the coronavirus are bad indeed. But it’s hard to know how accurate all the numbers are. They may be high. They may be low. But journalists should not pretend that they’re precise.

Asheville Pastor Bob Drake used to talk about the difference between gnosis (abstract knowledge) and epignosis (specific knowledge gained through personal experience). In God’s providence, I gained some epignosis about healthcare issues during 23 days of the waning 2020 calendar. That’s because late one October night, while sleepily making my way through a dark room of our house, I stumbled, fell, and fractured the femur in my left leg.

I couldn’t move and had to be taken by ambulance to the brand-new emergency room at our regional hospital—where over the next month I received prompt, sensitive, and helpful care.

In God’s providence, I gained epignosis about healthcare issues during 23 days of 2020.

Such care is not always predictable. Teaching the art of healthcare to a group of 12,000 employees in a dozen hospitals in western North Carolina is no easy assignment. Some will get it. Many won’t. Creating uniformly high standards is especially hard when there’s suspense about who will be running the show and what the standards will be.

Only a few months before I checked in, the hospital and most of its assets and subsidiaries had been sold lock, stock, and barrel to a giant healthcare company from Tennessee. The signals of tension I was getting from staff from hour to hour were altogether real. The debate within the healthcare community over the relative benefits of for-profit vs. nonprofit structures was being put to the test—right where I could see it up close.

Other tensions also were evident. Part of the assignment for hospital workers was to promote both healing and comfort for my badly fractured leg. A much more elusive part of their assignment was to keep in mind my 7-year-old diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease. Even highly trained neurology specialists respond to some new problematic issue for a Parkinson’s patient with a simple “Sorry, we’re not quite sure just what’s going on. We’ll just have to charge that one up to Parkinson’s for now.”

So now I live not only in the state of North Carolina but in the state of confusion as well. During my fourth week in a hospital bed, I lay there trying to wrap my drug-infested brain around some enormous problems. I hadn’t listened to the national or international news for three weeks or more, but I was tuned in to hyperlocal hospital news: bickering, squabbles, tensions of new ownership.

It all makes me wonder. We’re told that something approaching 360,000 Americans died during 2020 due to the coronavirus. We’re rarely reminded that something more than 3 million Americans died—of all causes—during that same 12-month stretch.

Sometimes we’re told “underlying factors” played a part in coronavirus deaths, but it’s hard to know how large a part that was. Is 360,000 coronavirus deaths the right number? Too high? Too low? It’s hard to know. But it is sloppy journalism just to assume that the number is accurate. Future journalists and historians will be debating.

Hospitals show us what we don’t know, but they can also concentrate the mind on what we do. In bed I could not help thinking of a song my father used to sing. I wish someone would sing it now.

The Great Physician now is near, The sympathizing Jesus. He speaks the drooping heart to cheer Oh, hear the voice of Jesus!

Joel Belz

Joel is WORLD’s founder. He contributes regular commentary for WORLD Magazine and WORLD Radio. Joel has served as editor, publisher, and CEO over three decades at WORLD and is the author of Consider These Things. Joel resides with his wife, Carol, near Asheville, N.C.


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