On September 6, Hahnemann University Hospital will officially close. The shutdown is another tragic story of “the big guy vs. the little guy,” and in health care the little guy always loses. We see it all too often — a hospital that serves working class families lost, hundreds of jobs made redundant, and thousands in the community without access to affordable health care.
As national president of the Committee of Interns and Residents, I’ve spoken to countless residents and health-care providers. The one thing that remains constant is the incredible fear we face as doctors when we have no autonomy, power, or ability to be a part of the decision-making process in our place of work. The reality is that as our health-care system continues to put profits over people, situations like Hahnemann will become more and more common.
After the announcement about Hahnemann’s closure, requests for support flooded our in boxes as residents asked our union to help them find ways to continue their training and serve patients. For me and my colleagues (over 16,000 of us), unionizing has been the only mechanism that has given us actual power, allowing us to have a say in how we practice medicine and how our hospitals run.
In the past few years, articles about physician suicides and burnout have brought our issues to the forefront in the general public. Working on the front lines of medicine, I’ve seen how hospitals implement systems that are designed to make as much profit as possible while spending the least. Often, it hurts our patients and it hurts us as physicians.
I’ve also seen how leveraging collective power has completely challenged the status quo in many of our hospitals. Through our union, we’ve been able to implement life-changing programs, like The Family Health Challenge, a community-based program for children ages 7-11 that started in Bronx, N.Y. In partnership with N.Y.C. public schools and after-school programs in high-need areas, resident physicians teach lessons to students in a culturally relevant, engaging way. The program expanded to Queens and Brooklyn and reached over 1,200 kids.
Every year we get more interest in programs that extend beyond the exam room. We strike to change the lives of hardworking families, the elderly, unemployed, and others who fall through the cracks. We’ve been able to create more holistic approaches to medical education that encourage our well-being as doctors. In recent political debates, Medicare and Medicaid continue to be brought up, and year after year, we hear promises of how these programs are going to “fix” health care. The truth is that the cost of health care is still rising at unimaginable rates, the best hospitals and treatments are mostly available to the rich, and people of color and poor people continue to have worse health outcomes across the board.
Given the direction health care is going, unionizing is not only the best option for physicians, it has become necessary in order to maintain influence in an industry meant to make the world a healthier, safer place. When it becomes commonplace for hospitals to liquidate in order to make a profit, or cut costs at every corner, while health-care costs for patients continues to skyrocket, it makes for an inequitable and very dangerous health-care system.
People die when hospitals prioritize the bottom line. Literally. Physicians are killing themselves. And patients are dying because they can’t afford medication or treatment.
Will unions save the entire health-care industry? Probably not, but it’s a huge step in the right direction for re-centering patient care and empowering health-care providers to contribute toward healing a health-care system that currently puts doctors in a precarious position and costs too much for too many people.