04/24/2012 04:48 pm ET Updated Jun 24, 2012

The $2 Trillion Question

Health care and its ~2 trillion dollar price tag.

Imagine if America spent $2 trillion a year on anything else that was broken. Not just broken, but predictably, preventably, and repeatedly broken.

If our communication satellites kept falling out of the skies and crashing into cities, companies would have to design them better or we'd have to learn to live without satellites. If our homes kept collapsing every time snow fell on them, homebuilders would either have to build them better, or everyone would move to warmer areas. But we wouldn't keep paying this expense year after year without fixing the problem.

So why is it that America is still spending $2 trillion on health care, mostly treating people after they become sick? That's one of the many questions I'm asking myself after attending TEDMED, which brought health care innovators and visionaries together to ponder new solutions to stubborn problems.

How can we shift money toward prevention, where each dollar can save us multiple dollars on treatment? How can we get Americans to "buy" healthy lifestyles that prevent expensive illnesses? We haven't found the exact answer yet. But people are applying their creativity to it... And our nation's future is going to require solutions to these problems.

What can doctors do?

Right now, we practice medicine backward, spending far too much time on fixing problems once they have already occurred, and way too little -- if any -- on preventive efforts. One answer may be to redesign the system so doctors are paid for good outcomes. Right now, too much emphasis is put on paying doctors to do procedures, whether or not they actually lead to better patient health.

That's akin to taking your car to the shop, where the mechanic installs all kinds of new parts without an overall plan for how the additions will actually help the car run longer or better. Wouldn't you rather pay a mechanic who has an overall plan for your car to reach 300,000 miles with fewer major repairs?

What can individuals do?

A good start, perhaps the only start, is for all Americans to see their health as their own responsibility. The doctor can help, but this is only after you've done your absolute best on your own.

No, you can't completely protect yourself from getting diabetes, heart disease, and cancer -- which are expensive diseases that are dragging down our entire economy. But there's no good reason why the numbers should be so high across the nation. Hopefully someday as we're making choices on what we'll eat and how we'll spend our leisure time, every single day we'll weigh these choices as: "Am I taking a step closer to chronic disease, or a step away from it?" Because that's what each and every day helps determine.

What can our nation do?

We can change our often-accepted mindset that being unfit is just as OK as being fit. We can radically shift our thoughts on what kinds of food are OK to eat, and which kinds aren't.

Two generations from now, when our grandkids are watching a TV show set in our decade, the sight of people snacking and lounging their way toward ill health could seem as strange and fascinating as the sight of the characters on Mad Men smoking and coughing through their waking hours.

And these descendants of ours could be spending those trillions of dollars on improvements that we can't even fathom today.

For more by Dr. Cindy Haines, click here.

For more healthy living health news, click here.

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