Behavior & Development • Apr 30, 2013

When Healthcare Can’t Heal

A 2-year-old child of one of my colleagues just got a glob of Vaseline in his hair.  After trying everything obvious and searching the internet, nothing seemed to get the Vaseline out of his hair.  I’m privileged to work with a group of about fifty pediatricians, and most of us are parents.  When we’re totally stuck as a parent, or a doctor, we turn to our colleagues for help.  Here’s what this group of Washington University pediatricians came up with as remedies for Vaseline in hair (note: this does NOT constitute medical advice):

–          Dove soap

–          Dawn soap, and patience

–          Cornstarch powder

–          “Wash his hair with goop.”

–          “5-7 shampoos”

–          “Tell everyone you’re doing a 50’s greaseball theme.”

–          “Paul Mitchell Tea tree shampoo with 3 washes… watch the eyes, it burns.”

–          “scissors”

Here’s the ugly truth: doctors just don’t know how to fix everything.  We don’t really know how to get Vasoline out of toddler hair, and we really can’t cure a lot of pediatric ailments.  The longer I practice medicine, the more I recognize the limitations of the healing arts.  I can treat an asthma flare-up, but I can’t make the disease go away.  I can’t do much for the common cold.  Baby with fever?  I can spend several thousand dollars of your money on x-rays and lab tests, and I probably should, but most of the time I can’t make your baby’s infection go away.  And nothing has highlighted my medical impotence more than parenting my toddler with multiple food allergies.

Healthcare Trends

Yet the hope that medicine can fix our imperfect minds and bodies is more alive than ever.  I see this false hope perpetuated through the business of medicine—from those trying to make money.  I see it in prescription drug advertising and hospital slogans.  But most of all I see this false hope in our hearts.  We want to live healthy long lives but life is always fatal and rarely easy.

For many Americans, the false hope of modern medicine has already come to fruition.  These are the Americans who have been hurt by the false hopes we’ve propagated.  Sadly, they distrust our healthcare systems.  They are afraid to vaccinate their children, and avoid most medications.  They look to the new booming business of alternative health care.

I want our country to have better access to quality health care.  I want a greater percentage of our country insured.  But I also want to be realistic.  Every health care dollar we spend is one dollar we are not spending on education and other valuable endeavors.  People talk about waste in the healthcare system, but waste is only part of the problem.  First, we need open our eyes to the false hope of medicine and take personal responsibility for our healthcare spending.


  1. I think your statement, “We want to live healthy long lives but life is always fatal and rarely easy” is the touchstone of the biggest challenge in society. We don’t want to believe that life ends, much less that our own life, or God forbid, one of our children’s lives, will end. But your succinct statement of life always being fatal is the unfortunate truth. Were we all to live each day with that in mind, I think the world would be much different.

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