David R. Henderson  

Health Care Story

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This is one of my very few posts in which I'm not trying--or, at least, not trying hard--to draw a moral or a lesson or illustrate an economic principle. I just found it fascinating. If I were trying to extract a lesson, it would probably be a Robin Hanson, we-waste-a-lot-of-money-on-health-care lesson.

Last night, my wife, who's recovering from a bad cold, suddenly had trouble breathing. At about 10:00 p.m., I took her to the local emergency room. When she was giving her data to the nurse who checked her in, I commented on how few people were in the ER compared to the number I expected. She answered, "American Idol must be on tonight."

"Really?" I said.

"Oh, yes," she said. "When American Idol is on or when football playoff games are on, we get way fewer people coming in. Also, we have a lot of 'regulars' and that number tends to drop off when American Idol, or football games, or the Grammies are on."

I read this to my wife just now (she's doing better, by the way) and she told me she has a different moral: "People have an amazing capacity to ignore their symptoms, whether real or imagined, if something comes along that's more interesting." I'm not sure whether this is a different moral or a non-economist's way of stating something similar to my Robin Hanson moral.


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COMMENTS (11 to date)
Mike writes:

Similar story:

We have ice on the roads in Dallas, all sorts of things are shut down. My daughter had a scheduled dr. appointment yesterday. Doc's office called and said to come anytime it was convenient as lots of people were cancelling appointments due to the road conditions.

We went and were treated like royalty as there was no one else there. It was the most enjoyable dr. visit I have ever had.

We, like I assume most who use this doc, have a $25 copay for a routine visit. When the costs go up (convenience and safety here) the business at the doc's office drops way off.

Alex J. writes:

Contra Hanson, there might be more deaths than usual during these entertainment related ER down times.

Ben A writes:

This has been observed in other contexts. For example this study, which showed Boston ER visits were responsive to Red Sox playoff games:

http://www.childrenshospital.org/newsroom/Site1339/mainpageS1339P1sublevel169.html

Joey Donuts writes:

Maybe we should take a look at reducing medicaid subsidies and instead subsidize entertainment venues including television shows and sporting events perhaps even free tickets to movies. The reduced demand for medical services may lower medical costs more than the cost of the subsidies.

It may also be easier to accomplish this politically than to change the way we subsidize medical care.

celestus writes:

Indeed. There have been observations of

- lower mortality among Jews the week before Passover and higher mortality after;

- lower mortality among old Chinese women the week before the Harvest Moon Festival (don't know what this is, admittedly) and higher mortality after;

- lower mortality among Christians before Christmas than after Christmas

In all of these cases it is suggested that medical problems themselves are somehow postponed by major events, and if this is the case than it would be unsurprising for people to seek out less medical attention.

What this says about the nature of religion in modern America is left as an exercise.

Evan writes:
What this says about the nature of religion in modern America is left as an exercise.
I think it says less about religion and more about family and sociability. The obvious explanation is that dying people are holding on to spend one last [important religious/cultural event] with their families and let go immediately afterward. I think it's fairly well-established that a person can briefly postpone an age/illness related death with willpower.

Of course, after reading David's story another explanation comes to mind. This is that people are less likely to seek frivolous medical care during a holiday, and therefore less likely to be killed by some SNAFU that occurs when said frivolous care is administered.

Hasdrubal writes:

I guess the next question is: Are there increases in ER visits immediately after major TV/Sporting/Whatever events end so that total ER visits average out over time?

If so, people are likely putting off medical care, if not people are probably overconsuming/wasting care.

Bill writes:

Opportunity cost doesn't take a vacation when people become sick.

Tracy W writes:

A workmate who volunteered as a Samaritan hotline counsellor once said that Wednesday nights were quiet because that was good TV night (in NZ).

Which makes sense, if you're caught up in the latest episode of Mad Men, you have less brain space to think negative things about your life.

mike shupp writes:

Uh... people go to the ER when they feel they have a serious enough complaint, but those complaints aren't always immediately life-threatening. Which explains why ERs are often filled with people waiting for attention, rather than being served as fast as they appear. If you think you're going to wind up in a queue -- which is what most people going to ERs know to expect -- why not postpone the evil moment with something pleasant like a TV show? It doesn't mean that your bruised arm or swollen legs or labored breathing is something imaginary which you switch on or off after checking the TV schedules; it just shows some people are will "tough it out" for a short period when given incentives.

Take two aspirin and consult an economist.

Kyle writes:

I love the linked article, but I strongly object to the term "waste" as it's being used. There is almost no money wasted in our healthcare system.

If you think there is, just try to take the good or service away. People scream and call their lawyers. And don't even try to take their lawyers away, they love the legal/medical lottery.

US citizens are getting the health system they've been begging for.

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