January 6, 2010 — Dr. Robert Powers is trying to explain how the medical industry works.
In a January term course at the University of Virginia titled "The American Health Care System," Powers, who practices emergency and internal medicine at the Medical Center and is a professor in U.Va.'s School of Medicine, tackles a topic to which he was drawn from many sides.
"I have been practicing medicine for about 30 years, and have studied policy and management as it relates to my work, but also as a citizen, taxpayer and patient," he said. "I have found people have a lack of information, or misinformation."
This is the third time Powers has taught the course during the J-Term, a special academic session that allows students to take one intensive course for three credits. He said students – undergrads from all fields – embrace it.
"We get some pre-med students, those interested in the health professions, or in health policy, or political science," he said. "There is no typical student."
Sociology major Rebecca Jonas said she's taking the class because she is interested in a public health career; Corina Pan, who has not yet declared a major, is taking it because a friend recommended it; and Yun Zhou, a third-year business major, enrolled to get a perspective from a doctor.
"I did not know enough about health care," Zhou said. "It is really useful to get practical facts."
Jonas said the class provides an opportunity to learn specifics. "It's taught by someone in the field who has insights from personal experience," she said.
Powers examines the current system, looks at how health care is provided elsewhere and reviews how it can be made more "user-friendly." At the end of the course, he wants students to have a clear understanding of the functional structure of how health care is delivered and financed.
The curriculum includes a multi-media presentation, taking examples from print, television, radio and movies, including "Sicko," Michael Moore's film on the medical system.
"I wanted to get a leftist view and I will also show the libertarian side," he said. "We will have some guest lecturers and have lectures on ethics, humanities and medical decision-making."
This year the course is very timely, with Congress working to finalize a health care reform plan.
"The current debate has given it legs," he said. "In the past year, there has been an information overload about the costs and financing. There have been very few falsehoods, but a lot of selective truth to support different points of view on both extremes."
Pan, who said she supports health care reform, said the course "helps with the debate."
Powers has worked with this subject before, beginning several years ago with an address to U.Va. Medical School faculty members. Given the liberty of choosing his topic, he thought this was a hole in the curriculum that needed to be plugged.
The three-credit course, for which there are no prerequisites, is being offered as an Interdisciplinary Studies course, Powers said, because "it does not fit neatly into most areas."