EYE ON THE PIE: Your call is important to someone

August 1, 2005

I'm on hold after calling Wishard Hospital's Adult Medicine Clinic at 7 a.m., as instructed, to get an appointment with my doctor. My call is very important, the recorded message says, but no one is responding.

First, I am told that if this call concerns a "life-threatening situation," I should hang up and call 9-1-1. That's really helpful. Maybe other, more sophisticated patients can identify a "life-threatening situation." I am always reluctant to make such a determination.

Then I go through a series of press one, press two, etc., as we have all come to know as the heart of automated phoneanswering systems. Now I'm being subjected to a series of reinforcing statements about how important my call is and how I can take advantage of diabetes- and smoking-information programs. Since I don't have diabetes and have no intention of giving up smoking cigars, these announcements do little to increase my affection for this institution.

So, while I'm waiting, let me tell you that a reader who identifies himself as my favorite editor has pointed out that the great Bob Cousy of the Boston Celtics did not spell his name "Cousey," as in last week's column.

Blame me for sloth and trusting information on the Web. If you look up Bob Cousey, you will find references to him. But the references are more authoritative if you type in Bob Cousy.

This is a lesson worth learning. Don't trust information just because it agrees with what you already believe. The Web, radio, TV, newspapers and our friends all possess massive amounts of information that is false.

What is the truth about Karl Rove? What is the truth about Iraq? What are the consequences of the Supreme Court's decision on eminent domain? How healthy is the American economy? Does industry in Indiana need more tax breaks?

For some of these questions, it will take years for the answers to be known, yet we want to know today. For other questions, the answers are not matters of fact, but matters of opinion. Sometimes, I believe the only truth to be found in this world is in sports statistics. Then I start to think about steroids and even that article of faith is challenged.

We have learned we cannot trust every audited corporate earnings report. Restated earnings are becoming commonplace. Stock prices that zoom about like roller coasters are not reliable indicators of corporate values. Photographs can be "enhanced" and are not trustworthy.

Wait, a human voice has just come on the line. It took only 28 minutes of waiting.

I'm back. I have an appointment with my doctor. Would a person with less patience have waited so long? Should a person in pain or severe discomfort be forced to wait nearly half an hour to talk to a human? What kind of health care is

being offered by Wishard Hospital?

Wishard is a public hospital primarily serving poor people and a few of the weird like me who are interested in what kind of services the poor receive. Where would you have Wishard shave quality, in telephoneanswering services or in medical services? Should the health services offered to the poor be differentiated from those offered to the more affluent members of society?

Don't bother to ask. The services available to the poor will be of lower quality than those offered others, unless there is strict regulation of medical activities. The real question is, how much worse care will we tolerate for the poor?

We'll not be able to answer that question until we know how to measure the quality of health care. Some progress is being made, but all we really know now is how many minutes we wait while being told our call is important to someone.

Marcus taught economics more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU's Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to mortonjmarcus@yahoo.com.
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