Make Health Care Patient Driven

By most measures, the United States spends more on health care than any other country in the world. Health care costs consume 16 percent of our nation's economic output, and in 2005 they mushroomed even higher, at a rate roughly three times faster than the rate of inflation.

In the world's only remaining superpower, 46 million Americans remain uninsured. For the first time in nearly a decade, the number of uninsured American children is on the climb.

And despite the successes of the civil rights movement, minority health disparities plague the country.

After more than 20 years in medicine and 12 years in government, I am convinced that health is the single most important challenge we will face over the next decade.

We're on the cusp of a national tipping point. How we address the looming health care challenges currently facing the nation will determine the quality and availability of health care for decades to come.

I've sponsored more than 200 health-related bills during my years in the Senate. Collectively, they advance my vision for the future of health care.

Briefly, it's a patient-centered, consumer-driven, provider-friendly health care system fueled by information, choice and control.

It's patient-centered. That means the patient -- not the provider, not the drug company, not the insurer, and not the government -- is at the heart of American health care.

Growing up, when my dad was a family physician in Nashville, I would ride along with him to make house calls. It was so clear to me: Always, it was about the patient.

It wasn't about what the insurance companies would cover, or guarding against lawsuits. It was about restoring the patient to health.

But we've lost that focus in recent decades, and it's time to restore it.

Second, it's consumer-driven. That means it's market-based. Right now, instead of letting people hire their own physicians and pay them, we have a system in which no one pays his or her own medical bills. Rather, there's a third-party payment system.

It should be the actual consumers who make decisions affecting their health care -- not the employers, not the insurers, not hospitals, and not the doctors.

And third, it's provider-friendly. That means the system encourages students to go into medicine and it encourages health care professionals to stay in the field.

Today that's not the case. That my sons and other kids their age are deterred from entering the practice of medicine because of the horror stories they've heard about lawsuits is just one symptom of a system that's gone horribly awry. The current environment is simply inhospitable to doctors.

Moving toward this vision is within our grasp. And we must act quickly, because the demographic wave of the baby boom retiring will be upon us.

Last year Congress passed the Patient Safety and Quality Improvement Act. This law takes significant steps to help improve quality and weed waste out of the health care system.

The Senate took another powerful step last year by passing the Wired for Health Care Quality Act, a bipartisan initiative that promotes the use of electronic medical records and jumpstarts America's transition to a seamless, secure and fully interoperable electronic health records system.

The House recently passed companion health information technology legislation, and it's my hope that a conference report will be ready for floor consideration when Congress reconvenes in November.

Bit by bit, piece by piece, we're working toward that vision of health care. We can't afford to lose momentum.

Sen. Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader, graduated from Harvard Medical School and holds medical licenses in Tennessee, Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.