Despite the fact that the United States spends more money per capita on health care than any other country in the world, many critics argue that health care in this country is inferior to what can be found in many other developed countries, especially those with National health systems. These critics are also proponents of a sweeping conversion of health care in this country to a single-payer or national system.
Critics of the U.S. health care system point to statistics compiled by the World Health Organization (WHO) that rank the United States thirtieth in the world in life expectancy. The accompanying chart shows that in 2007 the average life expectancy in the United States was 78.06 years. Actually, that was not too far behind #1 France with an average life expectancy of 80.59. (click on the chart to enlarge)
I recently came across an excellent article* that attempted to put this statistic in perspective. The article was based on a book by Scott W. Atlas, entitled “In Excellent Health, Setting the Record Straight on America’s Health Care”, that argued that the U.S. health care system before Obamacare was “ the best system in the world.”
How could this be given the mortality statistics? Atlas argued that the WHO statistics were skewed by a number of factors, and that they should be taken with the proverbial grain of salt. The most important element in the low ranking of the U.S. mortality rate would appear to have no connection with health care at all. It is the extraordinarily high rate of murder and automobile accidents in the U. S.
“Murder and accidents account for the majority of deaths among young adults in the United States, and deaths at young ages substantially impact life expectancies.”
If murders and auto fatalities alone were factored out of the statistics, the U.S. would have the highest life expectancy in the world. Murders and automobile fatalities are serious but they are not a health care problem.
Other factors are almost as important in lowering life expectancy. The United States has a much higher rate of obesity than other developed countries and obesity reduces life spans by up to eight or ten years. Also, while smoking has dramatically decreased in the U. S., the residual effects of a long history of smoking in this country will continue to impact mortality statistics for years to come.
Finally, differences in record keeping also impact mortality statistics. Scott Atlas noted the more stringent reporting requirements in the U.S. compared to Europe in the matter of infant mortality figures.
“considering that roughly half of all U.S. infant mortality occurs in the first twenty four hours, the single criterion of omitting deaths within the first twenty four hours by many European nations generates their falsely superior infant mortality rates.”
Rather than blaming the U.S. for higher infant mortality rates, Atlas argued that,
“The United States health care system should be applauded for its efforts to save premature babies rather than write them off as stillborn, as many other countries do.”
A proper evaluation of the health care system in the U.S. should be based not on flawed mortality statistics but on actual medical care, especially the diagnosis and treatment of important diseases. Here are some facts that Atlas unearthed.
1. Prolonged wait times are commonly found in health systems with government controlled nationalized health insurance. Numerous countries with single payer systems had to create policies to address prolonged wait times, including Canada, England, Italy, Sweden, and Spain.
[I saw this myself when I visited my cousins in Italy a few years ago. They had purchased individual insurance policies to pay for things or procedures not covered by the national system. For example, government doctors would routinely say that you could wait four months for a procedure, or visit them in their private office for the procedure in the next day or two if they would pay on their own, The above chart indicates that over 90% of people in Italy have purchased private insurance policies.]
2. In the United States, referring doctors book CT and MRI appointments within days. In other countries people wait. In 2010, the average wait time for a CT scan was 4 weeks and for an MRI 10 weeks. A 2011 study in the United Kingdom indicated thousands of people waited over six weeks for an MRI scan. With respect to breast cancer biopsies, another survey indicated that only 1% of U.S. patients waited three weeks or more while 44% of Canadian and 20% of U.K. patients waited that long.
3. No elective cardiac bypass patients in the United States were known to have waited more than three months, while 47% in Canada and 89% in the United Kingdom waited that long.
4. The United States tends to have the highest percentage of screenings for breast, cervical, prostate and colon cancer.
In conclusion, the availability of state of the art medical technology, timely access to specialists, the most effective screening, the shortest wait times for life changing surgeries, the newest, most effective drugs for more accurate, safer diagnosis and for the most advanced treatment are all superior in the United States.
In 2008 one study showed that up to 85000 patients sought in-patient treatment outside their home country, and 87% of them traveled to the United States.
*The article was written by Charles P. McQuaid, President and Chief Executive Officer of Columbia Wanger Asset Management. and appeared in the 2013 semiannual report of the Wanger International Fund. It was based on the book by Scott Adams mentioned above, as well as a book by Robert Ohsfeldt and John Schneider, "The Business of Health."