President Obama has spent a lot of time defending his health law, but he appears to us to be quite ill-equipped to actually talk about health. In fact, it’s the just about the only thing he doesn’t talk about. He’s talked insurance, web sites, and funneling even more money to medical care providers. He’s talked about deadlines. He’s talked about glitches. The shocking lack of official communication about what should be the central message of any drive to make Americans healthier should tell us something.
In point of fact, no American leader since John F. Kennedy has had the courage to implore us to work for our own better health. He wrote in 1961 in Sports Illustrated:
“Thus, in a very real and immediate sense, our growing softness, our increasing lack of physical fitness, is a menace to our security…if our bodies grow soft and inactive, if we fail to encourage physical development and prowess, we will undermine our capacity for thought, for work and for the use of those skills vital to an expanding and complex America. Thus, the physical fitness of our citizens is a vital prerequisite to America‘s realization of its full potential as a nation, and to the opportunity of each individual citizen to make full and fruitful use of his capacities.”
By JFK’s clear, powerful, and time-tested standard, we are a disaster. We have no leader on health. Nobody.
If the Forest Service has Smokey Bear and local law enforcement agencies have McGruff the Crime Dog, where is our fearless leader who makes doing healthy things cool, interesting, and desirable?
Doing healthy things is not cool, and until it becomes cooler than doing unhealthy things, we are delivering to ourselves and our kids a future of misery and entrapment in a medical care system that regards us and them as widgets in its revenue cycle.
Ask any kid on any playground who’s their role model for living a healthy life, who’s teaching them the value of eating smartly, exercising, and managing their stressors, and you’ll get a blank stare For example, standard medical advice is that electronic gaming is bad and is a major contributor to inactivity and declining health in our children. But, gaming is here to stay, and we don’t see how professional finger-wagging gets kids to make better choices. Who’s their enlightened leader to tell them that getting up and getting fit will make them even better gamers? Nobody. Leaders meet their followers where their “heads” are and craft messages that connect and inspire action.
Health has been co-opted by the medical-industrial complex and turned on its head, so that we are taught, absurdly, that health is more often than not a product of more medical care. Health is no more a medical product than wisdom is an outcome of formal education. The price we pay for this distortion is no political or industry leader has the temerity to move us out of our stupor and tell us that the present state of affairs is not only our own fault, but it is our responsibility to fix it. We want the right to affordable care, but don’t want the responsibility to avoid needing it.
The least expensive medical care is the care you don’t need.
Who is telling us this? Nobody. It’s trite, Washington-insider bloviation to talk about downsizing the military. Where is the leader who tells us that it is time to downsize the healthcare system…to make it the smallest it can be and still meet the needs of a fitter population that’s helping itself by exercising more, eating smarter, not smoking, drinking less alcohol, and sleeping more? Where’s the app challenging you to track how many days you go without needing a doctor, hospital, or pharmacy and offering you rewards for that?
Great leaders inspire desire and their exhortations get people to move outside their comfort zones, voluntarily. JFK did it. And, from the opposite side of the political fence so, too, did Ronald Reagan. Given that JFK’s administration predated even Medicare and Medicaid, he did not have to envision a health reform initiative. If he had, considering his penchant for personal responsibility, we find it inconceivable that he would have intentionally produced reforms that increased dependency rather than decreased it. JFK was no choirboy, but neither was he a mama’s boy and, in the reverberation of his words, we hear a clear warning that the nation’s health is secured person-by-person, household-by-household, and community-by-community (with the encouragement and support of government) not by incoherently complex reform initiatives that enrich industries by leading new, flailing customers to their doors and asking nothing of them, in return.
We even imagine that JFK would confront us with something like, “Ask not only what the government and healthcare system can do for you, but ask what you can do to avoid needing it in the first place.” He would not have been anxious to get people into the healthcare system and its exponential growth might have sickened him. A measure of his success would have been in keeping people out of the healthcare system.
This isn’t to say (and it wasn’t said in The Soft American) that government has no role in the public health. Quite the contrary. JFK initiated the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and put the fitness of school kids front and center. We like to think that he also would have recognized (today) that our society’s sickening agricultural policies subsidize the production of tobacco, bacon, burgers, cheese, flour, sugar, and all the oils we need to produce a food supply swollen with pizza, cookies, crackers, Doritos, Cheetos, and Fritos…while literally ignoring broccoli and strawberries. He definitely would have had the courage to lead the charge to make the healthiest food, the cheapest food. And, with his passion for reversing the “softening” fitness and health status of our nation, he likely would NOT have left the “healthy food” mission to Jackie, as a First Lady pet project.
This country is in desperate need of a leader who can shake us out of our decadent torpor. Marshall McLuhan taught us that the medium is the message. We need a medium for doing healthy that is unmistakable, irascible, irresistible, and ubiquitous. That is the ONLY way to make doing healthy cool, and once it’s cool it will be everywhere. Baby steps aren’t working. We need leaps.
We close with the timeless words of JFK again:
“But no matter how vigorous the leadership of government, we can fully restore the physical soundness of our nation only if every American is willing to assume responsibility for his own fitness and the fitness of his children. We do not live in a regimented society where men are forced to live their lives in the interest of the state. We are, all of us, as free to direct the activities of our bodies as we are to pursue the objects of our thought. But if we are to retain this freedom, for ourselves and for generations yet to come, then we must also be willing to work for the physical toughness on which the courage and intelligence and skill of man so largely depend.”
Aye aye, sir!
General Healthy – following in the honored tracks of fire preventer Smokey Bear and McGruff, General Healthy is a bold, courageous, and inspirational motivator for health, with a mission of leading our kids to longer, happier, and healthier lives. Passionately brought to life by Barry Cohen, independent corporate wellness & benefits consultant, former health insurance industry insider, paradigm shifter, and married father of four.
Vik Khanna is THCB’s Editor-At-Large for Wellness. He is also author of THCB’s next e-book, Your Personal Affordable Care Act: Making Yourself Scarce in the Dysfunctional US Healthcare System, which, by the way, General Healthy loves.