Permit an analogy. When Thomas Eakins painted The Gross Clinic, he meant it as a tribute to the advent of corrective surgery. The canvas is of heroic dimensions and the composition is classical, with the doctor attending and lecturing in a halo of light. Dr. Gross doesn't merely hold a scalpel in his bloodied hand, but the future of medicine.
Looking at this scene today, however, we are more likely to recoil, like the woman on the left. The physicians are in street clothes and there is no attempt to keep any part of the procedure sterile. We don't see the future of the healing arts, but their crude and brutal past.
Today we are faced with reforming health care in America, and as the President told us last night, we are the last developed democracy to do so. We have a system that permits insurance companies to cherry-pick their clients, charge wildly varying rates, deny benefits in bad faith, and circumscribe doctors. And yet, a vocal minority in America resists change.
It's difficult to know what part of the present system conservatives are trying to protect. Perhaps they believe that medicine will become more impersonal, more vulnerable to political machinations, maybe even more expensive. Perhaps they're simply frightened of the unknown the way all of us fear doctors and hospitals.
I think the present system is untenable and will one day look as primitive as Dr. Gross and his operating theatre. Change will come. The question is: will our nation be healed by it, or overtaken?
The Gross Clinic by Thomas Eakins, 1875; 8' x 6.5'. Click on the picture for a closer look.
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