Thursday, August 13, 2009

will health care slip on oil?

Miller-McCune | As the government, the media and citizen activists grapple with fixing our health care system, one three-letter word has been conspicuously absent from the president on down: oil. But it should be in there. Given medicine's dependence on fossil fuels and the prospect of higher oil prices — now double that of last December — dwindling oil supplies will likely give our health system a shock. Think massive heart attack.

One might not imagine oil and medicine would mix, but U.S. health care relies on cheap crude in multiple ways: from petroleum-derived pharmaceuticals (including such commonly prescribed drugs as aspirin, vitamin capsules, cortisone and many antibiotics, antihistamines, medicated skin creams and psychiatric medications), catheters and syringes to running and transporting high-tech machines and time-is-of-the-essence ambulance runs. This makes for great aseptic single-use equipment and complex, even heroic, surgeries, but it also leaves our medical system highly vulnerable to any disruptions to the oil supply — which experts say will undoubtedly happen, though no one knows exactly when.

"World crude oil production has not grown materially since 2005," said Gail Tverberg, a co-editor of The Oil Drum known to readers as "Gail the Actuary." "With the recession, world crude production has now dropped back below the 2004 level." Most agree that we are approaching or have approached the point where global oil extraction has peaked, meaning that petroleum will become more difficult and expensive to access.

"In light of these facts, it should become a priority for health care professionals and institutions to identify and take actions to reduce their dependence upon conventional oil," said U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md. One of three scientists in Congress — he has a doctorate in human physiology — Bartlett serves on the House Science and Technology Committee and co-founded the Congressional Peak Oil Caucus.

Using a medical analogy, he counseled against waiting for his peers to lead the way in avoiding future problems.