We're All In This Together

November 1, 2009

UnitedHealth's Dr. Reed Tuckson believes managing the health of large populations and individuals calls for the best in every stakeholder

When Dr. Tuckson saw her again, she was in the emergency room, septic and malnourished with decubitus ulcers. She had missed every one of her follow up appointments. Medical science could certainly help treat her conditions, however, what the woman truly needed was support beyond the scope of medicine alone.

Dr. Tuckson, who today serves as executive vice president and chief of medical affairs for UnitedHealth Group, believes optimal healthcare delivery requires pulling the pieces of medical and social services together in a comprehensive way, "so that lovely, wonderful woman is not in a wheelchair at two in the morning, unable to breathe, hungry and in pain." He says the experience with that particular patient still resonates with him.

"The highest level of our mission requires us to find the common connection with the missions of the other stakeholders, because none of us can do alone what actually has to be done on behalf of each individual person," Dr. Tuckson says.

Making Decisions

Dr. Tuckson believes the industry must be more explicit about what patient-centered healthcare delivery should look like and how it should function, then share the vision beyond the purview of its own ranks. That vision isn't clear enough now to influence change. In order to generate a meaningful conversation that might lead to improvements in the system, the nation must take a long hard look at making choices and engaging consumers, he says.

"What's so frustrating about the health reform debate in Washington," he says, "is that it is so completely uninformed about the real issues: How do we make decisions that are personally appropriate that advance our chance for affordable access for the services that we need as individuals-both medical services and medically necessary social services?"

It's unreasonable to expect individuals in traditionally underserved populations with little optimism for the future to make healthy lifestyle choices a priority. Many skip preventive health services because they are struggling simply to get a hot meal on the table each night, Dr. Tuckson says.

"If gunshots are ringing through your community, it is very difficult to think about going jogging in the evening or planting a community garden, if there's no actual earth in which to plant," he says. "Those are real challenges that are stated the most dramatically."