11/06/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Learning From Others: A Virtue

I was one of the many spectators of the running of the bulls in Pamplona. I saw many injuries; several of the victims were Americans who were taken to local hospitals where they received free emergency medical care, thanks to the Spanish universal healthcare system. In the San Fermin fiesta, bulls run down narrow streets, behind crowds of the young clad in white and red. Each year, the San Fermin fiestas see severe injuries -- goring, falls, etc. Many victims land in local hospitals' ERs.

I visited the hospitals and talked to healthcare providers and patients about emergency and non-emergent health care in Pamplona and the rest of Spain. All of them professed their satisfaction with the system, something that's true of patients in France, England and the rest of Europe. They look at Americans and American medicine with disdain and pity, even as many Americans continue to claim "we have the best medical care" in the world. No matter that it doesn't cover wide swathes of the population.

My visit to Europe left me wondering about one thing: why doesn't America copy and adopt what works in other countries? Europeans, like folks in other developed nations, have developed healthcare systems that work well, managing to cover all their citizens at a time the rolls of uninsured Americans continue to rise; to a point where 40% of our citizens are underinsured and 15% are uninsured.

America does a great many things very well. Indeed the US is the source of many good ideas that many nations around the world copy and improve upon. It's no secret that Israel has spied on America, imported ideas that have led to new technologies. The Chinese, Indians and Japanese help themselves to American ways of doing things and shamelessly copy and then better whatever they take from us.

We are famous for our comparative lists; we chronicle which education system is better; which healthcare system has the highest child mortality, where life expectancy is better than America's. No sooner than we publish the reports than we file and forget them. In other countries, they are sources of soul-searching and attempts at improvement.

The point I'm making is, all world's nations are targeting America as the nation to beat. Unfortunately, over the last few decades, America has fallen behind: in ingenuity, in taking care of its citizens and the environment. I believe this has resulted from a government that is inimical to new ideas; a business sector interested in profits and profits alone, lacking in the wisdom of foresight and the realization that good ideas can be found anywhere human minds exist.

Ideas to save energy, to lower human's CO2 footprint have so permeated the way of life in Europe that a myriad ways have been found to efficiently do what's done in their daily lives. Today, hotel keys serve to turn out all lights as one steps out of hotel rooms. Small things like that add up very quickly in conserving energy, in curbing CO2 produced and the resultant global warming. We in America have as yet to adopt such ideas.

There's a difference in the way Americans and the rest of the developed world view their own universe and environment. For Americans, the tendency is to shrug things off, to postpone dealing with whatever may appear difficult -- to another year, another administration, another generation. Or until we are in a crisis and must deal with it.

A good example is Detroit's car makers. For far too long they persisted in manufacturing huge, gas guzzlers; reaping huge profits. Tomorrow was always a faraway land. On the other hand, Japanese car makers -- they had the same data as Detroit -- had their eye on the future. They saw that quality would in the end be rewarded and fuel efficiency would become the Holy Grail of automation's future. The difference was they had that unique Japanese desire to act on what seemed smart and useful. The future of car making is definitely theirs.

In T.R. Reid's Sick Around the World America's healthcare is compared to that of five European nations. We are found lacking in pretty much everything -- including quality and cost of care. Can we learn from them? We could try.

Yet, healthcare reform in America will not occur as long as Americans allow the discussion to be controlled by HMOs and the for-profit healthcare industry that has not been bothered by the huge numbers of the uninsured.

Until America decides that educating our children in an enlightened, scientific, objective way, as it is done in other nations, America will continue to be hampered, shackled down by bigots and religious zealots who have difficulty distinguishing between what belongs to science and what to theology. Many American School Boards might like to think that theology and prayer can get a man to the moon and Mars. I regret to say that only minds steeped in scientific thought and logic can ever plot a course to Mars and other stars. Indeed, already China is challenging our mastery of space navigation. China's dedication to science can not be taken lightly. If we had no other reason to propel us to change our ways, this should be cause enough to make us rethink our K-12 curriculum and the way we educate our kids.

If I could talk to the next president, I'd beg him to appoint an Undersecretary of "new ideas." I would advise we search for ideas all across the globe. Ideas we'd evaluate for their merit and for how they could help this nation compete and keep its edge as a shining star, that it has been for so long.

There's nothing more important at this stage of America's existence than the need to be informed by other peoples' ideas; to be fertilized by new concepts, new ways of thinking. Let's welcome; let's embrace it; let's work for it.