Dr. Young is a well known physician and health activist who continues to rally for social justice in the field of health. He is committed to ensuring that health care is recognized as a human right in this country. During the civil rights movement he founded the Medical Committee for Human Rights, which provided care to demonstrators in the South during the Freedom Summer, and helped the infamous Black Panthers and Young Lords set up free health clinics, among other deeds. These pioneering actions make him an obvious choice for this series. Nearing his 90s, Dr. Young is still rocking as the national coordinator for Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP), an advocacy organization which he founded, that supports a single-payer system of national health insurance.
Career in Profile
- 1944-1947 – Attended Northwestern University Medical School
- 1947 – Interned and served as a resident at Cook County Hospital
- 1964 – Founded and served as National Chairman of the Medical Committee for Human Rights
- 1972-1981 – Served as Chairman of Medicine at Cook County Hospital in Chicago
- 1980 – Young founded Health and Medicine Policy Research Group and is currently Chairman of the Board of that organization
- 1998 – Voted President of American Public Health Association
- 2008 – Retired
- NOW – National coordinator for Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP)
What inspires you?
In high school and certainly in college, I had to make career choices. I was leaning towards medicine, and it became clear to me that you could be a physician and be pretty evil. There’s plenty of opportunity for abuse…but you don’t have to be evil. So, I made a decision to pursue medicine. There was so much to be fixed in the health system. In recent years it’s only gotten worse. Big corporate interest has invaded the health system, there’s so much money to be made. In 1950, right after World War II, health care expenditures totaled $22 billion. Last year it was $2.7 trillion. That’s 18% of the GDP, and arguably the biggest sector in the nation! I think that our current economic troubles are due to the amounts of resources we have to dedicate to health care. Mind you, this $2.7 trillion is the result of testing, hospital care, and the high cost of health care. Yet, despite this expenditure, 50 million Americans have no [health] insurance and are therefore in great risk of bankruptcy. In this country, about 2 million people file for personal bankruptcy each year, and half are due to unpaid hospital bills. I decided that health is my calling, because there was plenty of opportunity to help people, and it was in huge need of reform.
One of my favorite parts of your career and story is your involvement with helping the Black Panthers and Young Lords with their health clinics. What are some of your best career successes?
The civil rights movement in the field of health, which was led by a lot of people, but mostly by Martin Luther King. I became active in the Medical Committee for Human Rights. As the name implies, we were eager to see that health care gets to our people, not just those with a lot of money. We were very successful in the early 1960s, when the civil rights movement was developing in the South. The different non-violent demonstrators were gaining public attention and support, and the most important leader – the strategist – was Martin Luther King. Our committee sent health workers like nurses and doctors. We were sympathetic to the demonstrators and gave them medical care when needed, and it was needed quite a bit. The police were very violent but King was steadfast. He knew being violent would be a losing proposition.
There were certain points, like the bridge in Selma, where the people were beaten one week and next week they were allowed to go through. As that event ended with victory, King decided that there were other places with segregation that was not enacted by law – in other words it wasn’t legally sanctioned – but it was just as real and just as important. He wanted to go to a northern city to do what he did in the South. He did a serious survey of the national strength of the movement and decided on Chicago. He moved here and participated mainly in school segregation. I had the good fortune of being designated as his physician. It was obviously a great honor. The problem was he didn’t get sick very much, but he got sick a little bit and I exploited the medical care to just sit there and speak to the great man. We had some very exciting moments.
When it comes to public health, what matters to you and why?
Public health is the heart of the matter. There’s a health system, a private sector, which takes care of people when they are sick. Even as we speak, we know there’s a huge shortfall. People don’t have access to physicians, either because of race or discrimination, or just plain not having money. The American health system is not doing the job. We have public clinics, which take care of part of the problem. The public sector is a big part of the answer. All the important public health jobs are there. Before I end my stay in this world, I hope that I will see that health care is a universal human right. This country has the money, the trainees, the facilities. We can make it happen. There’s a system in place but it’s not functioning, and that is reflected in the statistics: infant mortality, life expectancy, death from preventable diseases, all of these issues of a failing health system is a burden on our society. The bad news is that it’s been bad for this long into the 21st century. The good news is that we have the wherewithal to stand — all that’s necessary to make this a decent health system, we just have to enact it.
What is getting in the way of improving our health system?
Many things, none of them good or justified. There’s money to be made in medicine. It pushes people away from a decent solution. We have to, of course, confront racism. There’s way too many obstacles based on race and income that we still need to fight. I think it can be done! You can point to other huge problems in our society and we have to find money to solve them, but that’s not the problem in medicine. The money is there, the hospitals are there, the facilities are there. We need to address the racial stigma for people going into the health professions. That can be done in seven or ten years. I think the challenge is to make health care a human right in our society.
What would you say is an ideal solution to these public health challenges?
Single-payer national health insurance. Medicare is the best example of that. Everybody knows Medicare takes care of people over age 65. It is a benefit you get when you reach that age, and it doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor. It passed in 1965 and there were a lot of people who didn’t want it to succeed. Medicare is possibly the most thought out health care system in America. People used to dread getting old and being uninsured, but now they can put that behind them. There’s a statistic: if there was no Medicare, 22% of seniors would be in poverty. Now that number is 11%. Though it can be improved on, we are fortunate to have that experience, because it makes it easy to explain to the average guy in the street what we need.
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