Despite our individual differences, there is one fundamental aspect of being human that everyone shares- we all experience illness at some point in our lives. Some people are lucky, and only succumb to a cold every few years. Some people are accident prone, often getting scrapes, breaks, or bruises. Still other people suffer from debilitating disease or worse, genetic irregularities that lead to serious complications. But the fact remains that at some point, each of us will most likely experience a physical or mental malady. And what do we do when we get sick? We look for someone, or something, to help make us feel better.

In the last century, humans have made impressive leaps and bounds in medical science, providing us with more effective health care than ever before. From eradicating deadly diseases to performing heart surgery to curing infections, modern science has extended our longevity and increased our ability to remain healthier longer. Our continued research into how the body works and what creates sickness have led to the creation of life saving drugs, more effective diagnoses, and comprehensive treatments. Yet for all our advances, we still have much to learn. Modern medicine, much like predicting the weather, is still not an exact science.

Still, it would seem that from a health care perspective, we are living in the best of times. We may never eradicate injury or illness in their entirety, but we have the ability to diagnose and treat most problems and our knowledge increases every day. Yet as our technological prowess increases, and as our pharmaceuticals become more targeted, the costs of obtaining the benefits of our advances continue to skyrocket. In 2001, health care spending in America amounted to $1.4 trillion dollars. That number is expected to be $3.1 trillion by 2012. Double-digit increases in insurance premiums are now the yearly norm, and more people have to make the choice between paying for coverage or paying the rent. Employers, struggling under the burden of premiums for employees and their families are also cutting benefits and increasing co-pays in an effort to continue to offer benefits at all. And the giant pharmaceutical companies are pushing their latest designer pills on the public, promising a cure to every ill, but at a cost. Medical care seems to be all about profit these days and less about healing the sick and preventing illness.

If the high costs of health care were the only problem with our system, it would be enough. Unfortunately, the quality of our care, or maybe more accurately, the manner of our care, has taken a hit too. In an effort to make medicine more profitable for providers and more economical for consumers, the HMO was born. Not only has the HMO model failed to keep costs in check, it has removed the personal care by turning treatment into a fiscal matter instead of a human one. Doctors, with the ever-looming cloud of a malpractice suit over their heads, are less inclined to be decisive or even forthright with their patients about their conditions. Secure patient records, privacy, and confidentiality are a top concern, as consolidated databases offer fertile ground for identity thieves. Clinics and hospitals are overcrowded, understaffed, and often badly managed, adding long waits to the growing list of negative aspects of our system. In short, we have a real problem with the direction our health care system is going, and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better.

But unlike a doctor who must perform triage on a patient with multiple injuries and treat the most threatening injury first, we must look at our broken health care system as a whole and find a way to make the different parts more synchronistic if we are ever to create a system that embraces the ideals of good health care. We must examine the reasons for increasing costs and find a way to control them. We must develop better access to medical care. We must protect the privacy of the individual. And we must look at our own attitudes and assumptions regarding health care. We must make the choice that medical care is a right and not a privilege. And as a basic human right, we must create a program that offers each citizen a consistent level of health care and find a way to keep the costs in line. And we must recognize that public health care is a necessary component of a functioning society, preventing disease from destroying the population, thus keeping the society intact and growing. Because if we don’t have our health, what do we have?

The American Dream is a quest for personal happiness. In this quest, nothing can derail a person’s hopes and dreams quite like medical problems. The uncertainty of recovery is hard enough to get through. The added uncertainty of getting and paying for treatment only makes things that much harder.