The Nation's Health + life

Planned obsolence

In the 1960s, you’d purchase a new car. If you changed the oil, adhered to the maintenance schedule—and were lucky—you might expect to get 100,000 miles out of your automobile. Only an occasional car made it beyond that odometer hurdle. Even if the engine made it past the 100,000 mile milestone, the automobile body would inevitably start to develop rusting decay at the edges of the fenders, signaling body rot that threatened to open gaping holes of metal.


Then along came Toyota and Honda, whose cars easily reached 100,000 miles and well beyond, reliably and with bodies intact. As this realization sunk into the American consciousness, many asked, “Why can’t American automakers accomplish the same sort of trouble-free longevity?” “Buy American” emerged as a mantra to preserve American jobs and prop up an economy vulnerable to the superior automotive products from Detroit’s competitors.

Of course, American automakers have since responded to the challenge posed by the Japanese auto industry and produced automobiles that essentially matched the reliability and longevity of Japanese cars. But, the great unanswered question remains: For years before the onslaught of Japanese competition, did Detroit quietly plot to maintain a policy of planned obsolescence that ensured Americans would have to scrap the old and buy a new car every few years whenever the odometer tipped over 100,000 miles?

We will never know. At worst, it may represent the behind-closed-doors, back-slapping sort of plotting that, for many years, maximized revenues, ensured shareholder returns, and secured executive paychecks. Or, perhaps it wasn’t some evil conspiracy but just complacency, a profitable position of comfort at that. There’s little incentive for industry insiders to reveal such self-incriminating information.

But the example set by the American auto industry presents an unusual learning opportunity for us, a chance to make some useful comparisons to the heart healthcare industry.

Is the American healthcare industry also guilty of practicing a policy of “planned obsolescence,” just like Detroit? The product that helplessly crumbles is, of course, not your rust-riddled automobile, but you.

When someone sees a primary care physician year after year, yet appears one morning in the emergency room, clutching his or her chest in agony from the closed coronary artery responsible for a life-threatening heart attack—prompting the flurry of activity that results in $100,000 in hospital procedures . . .

Perhaps “planned obsolescence” is not the perfect phrase to describe the situation, but the principle still applies: A failure to inform the patient that such an outcome was possible—no, probable—makes you wonder whether such an outcome was predictable and thereby preventable in the first place.

What should we do when planned obsolescence leads us down a path engineered by someone who has something, often substantial, to gain? Even if it's just complacency, or adhering to a beaten, ineffective status quo (can you say "low-fat diet?), it all points in the same direction.

You have a choice: Refuse to buy a 1962 Impala of health care, otherwise known as conventional heart disease management.

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