art by Kirsten Kramer

Health care’s future depends on empowering patients

This is a system that traps us, in what one of my doctors called, the “medical mill.”

When it came time for my annual scans last year, to ensure that I was still in remission for breast cancer, I got a glimpse into what the future of health care could look like. 

I did two things in preparation for those tests that I hadn’t done before: I shopped around for the exams, and I demanded to ingest the necessary dye for them at home instead of at the clinic.

As a result, I saved my insurance company more than $5,000, and I saved myself hours of time and comfort.

If every patient took control of their care, we could have a drastically more affordable and humanizing health system, I realized.

That led to an obvious question: Then why don’t they?

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When I wrote my first essay in 2018, just after my breast cancer diagnosis, I was hopeful the American health care system was life-saving. I was a health reporter for a major news organization, and I believed the system was cumbersome but ultimately had my best interests at heart. 

Since then, I’ve had a front-row seat to how the American health care system actually works. 

The reason why we don’t shop around for our care or demand agency over it is because the system isn’t designed for us. It is not thinking about our convenience, or even our overall well-being.

Instead, it’s about keeping us under control. To bilk us.

That is why we’re rarely given prices for our care up front; why we’re kept in cold, sterile rooms on uncomfortable chairs, sometimes for hours; why we’re often required to strip out of our clothes unnecessarily; why it’s taken so long for patients to have power over our own data.

It is why companies do not consider giving us drugs at home

Instead, this is a system that traps us in what one of my doctors called, the “medical mill.”

Each health symptom becomes a new avenue for the physician to prescribe treatments, which often lead to new symptoms, and so on. Every specialist becomes a unique stop, another place to hand over your information and repeat. 

Eventually, it became clear that my body was the meat being processed on an assembly line. 

Once I saw all this, it was impossible to unsee. The system is so clearly dehumanizing and murderous that the people who run it misdirect us to its unnecessary complications. 

That’s why health care pamphlets and laws and doctor-speak are filled with acronyms you don’t understand, and insurance policies are so complicated even the insurance brokers can’t figure them out. It’s intended that way to keep you from taking control.

It suddenly makes sense why hospitals hide their prices and sue people who cannot pay, using debt collectors they own. The system was created to benefit the executives who own and run the hospitals, not you.

It explains why doctors lobby politicians to keep everyone but doctors from prescribing treatments and drugs, and why fraud in the system has become routine.

It explains why Americans spend more on health care than anyone in the world, yet don’t live as long. The health care system that once extended our lives is killing us to the point where it’s shortening our collective life span.

It explains why the system is racist and sexist.

Hospital and insurance executives and doctors are overwhelmingly men and overwhelmingly white

By contrast, most patients are women. They live longer and with more chronic health conditions.

The system is inhumane.

The system must change.

It must change from one built to make money at all costs — even when our lives are the price — to one focused on making us well.

This call to action is beyond debates about Medicare-for-all and similar short-term solutions, although you will find ideas about those and others on

To get real change, we must place the educated patient in the driver’s seat.

An educated patient is a patient with agency, control and expectations. This patient expects personalized medicine, reliable bills and convenient care delivered at home. This patient expects emotional and physical respect from doctors.

By expecting and demanding better care, patients can start to take control of the system, visit by visit. 

This must be a consumer-driven revolution in health care. We cannot depend on companies that profit from us to look out for our best interests.

When I entered cancer treatment, I had hoped the system would save my life, and it did. I’m now two years into remission from breast cancer. But that is a short-term outcome. 

When I realized the system I experienced was designed to trap me for profit in a hell I call “the beyond,” it changed my life forever. 

I quit my doctor, my medical treatment plan and my job.

And I created Barred Owl Press, with a mission to fight and overcome the health care system by educating patients to take control of their care. 

We aim to be a marketplace of ideas and products that empower patients. We will publish high-quality journalism and essays about how the system can change to benefit patients. We will review products that offer patients alternative treatments, to empower patients to shop for those treatments, which will increase their demand and lower their prices. 

All of our coverage will be free. Instead of charging for knowledge, we support ourselves by selling patient-friendly merch. We design clothes that look and feel great, and wearing Barred Owl Press means you support patients and reforming the health system.

Our health care system is in crisis, and climate change will only make it worse. That is an opportunity to change our culture and laws to put the patient first.

Our centralized, paternalistic system will collapse from pressure that’s been building for decades. The pandemic has only increased that pressure.

We must empower patients.

Our future depends on it.

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