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A deep problem is the replacement, in the medical profession as in the legal profession, of a professional model of service with a business model. In the professional model, the service provider is assured a good but not extravagant income by limitations on competition, and in exchange he is expected to avoid exploiting the ignorance of patients as he could do by performing unnecessary or low-value procedures. In the business model, the service provider endeavors to maximize his net revenues. In the case of medicine, the disparity of knowledge between provider and patient, coupled with the fear and desperation that serious illness (or just the possibility of it) engenders, enables the profit-maximizing provider often to convince the patient to undergo costly low-value treatments. Certainly the profit-maximizing health-care provider will be very relucant to refuse to provide a treatment that the patient insists upon, his insistence being made convincing by the fact that insurance will pay all or most of the cost. Insurers do try to limit their costs by refusing to approve low-value procedures—but in the face of combined pressure by provider and patient, the insurer is often forced to back down.

To return to the initial puzzle of why our peer nations are able to provide what seems, judging by outcomes, a level of health equal or superior to that of Americans at far lower cost, the only convincing answer is that the health-care providers in those nations limit treatment. I am not sure of the explanation, but the possibilities include: the professional model is more tenacious in societies less committed to free markets and a commercial culture than the United States; more of their hospitals are public and more of their doctors are public employees, who are therefore salaried rather than entrepreneurial; and Americans, being less fatalistic than most other peoples, have a more intense demand for life-extending procedures.