An interesting bit of history was played out this week at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health. The institution was established in 1916 as the first public health school in America, with a grant of $267,000 from John D. Rockefeller Jr., who came to Baltimore to deliver the check. Last Tuesday John D. Rockefeller IV -- the benefactor's grandson and now a U.S. senator from West Virginia -- came in his famous forbear's footsteps to deliver the annual J. Douglas Colman lecture at the school -- and a sharp lecture it was.
Although the two men are two generations removed, their hope is strikingly similar. Almost by definition, public health is preventive medicine on a grand scale and that was old John D. Rockefeller's purpose in endowing the school. Sen. Jay Rockefeller is preaching the same message in a slightly different form: Government must immediately take the steps to guarantee access to medical treatment for all Americans in a time when at least 34 million Americans, most of them the working poor, are uninsured. The result of this shameful statistic is that the hospital emergency room has virtually become the family physician for those people.
This results in an immensely inefficient use of medical resources -- the unnecessary expenditure of huge amounts of money for treating conditions which could have been prevented at only a fraction of the cost had the people had access to medical treatment when their symptoms first appeared. Fully half the patients at Hopkins Hospital at any given moment are being treated for conditions that could have been prevented.