U.S. health care system ranks low
October 10, 2006
Our health care system is deathly ill.
Two new studies provide this stark diagnosis for our wildly expensive, market-based system.
The United States ranks last or near last among industrialized countries on a disturbing range of health indicators, according to a recent study by the Commonwealth Fund, published in the online version of the journal Health Affairs.
Researchers looked at 37 measures of how well health care systems perform -- from how the patients fare to how efficiently the system runs -- and gave each of almost two dozen industrialized nations an overall grade. The United States scored a dismal 66 out of 100.
Worse, we had the highest infant mortality rate of all 23 countries and the lowest life expectancy for people above the age of 60. Our preventable deaths are more than 50 percent higher than those in France. A third of U.S. patients report having suffered a medical or lab error in the last two years.
What researchers couldn't find was the efficiency a market-based system is supposed to create. Less than a fifth of U.S. doctors use electronic health records -- an innovation that would help cut down on all those medical errors. A quarter of U.S. patients say they have to wait at least six days to get care.
Meanwhile, we shell out twice the median spent by the other industrialized countries studied, measured against gross domestic product. For all that money, we still can't manage to provide coverage for the growing ranks of uninsured Americans, which range from 40 million to 60 million, depending on which estimate you use.
And according to a second study, our costs are still climbing.
Privately insured Americans spent 7.4 percent more on health care in 2005, roughly the same growth rate seen in the previous two years, according to an Oct. 3 Health Affairs report. Not only is that spike nearly double last year's increase in workers' pay, it also runs far ahead of overall economic growth. That means both employers and employees are bleeding to financial death from health care costs.
Private health care companies are doing what theyíre supposed to do in a market: make a profit. But health care consumers arenít anything like their counterparts in department stores. They're buying something they desperately need and face an impossible learning curve in order to make wise decisions. That's a recipe for predation -- for unnecessary treatments, price gouging on drugs, inflated insurance premiums and more.
This is the predictable result of allowing health care to become a commodity that's bought and sold like a home appliance. As long as we cling to the myth that something so critical to public well-being can be left to the unrestrained whims of the marketplace, Americaís health will lag sickeningly behind that of the rest of the industrialized world.
Kai Wright is publications editor for the Black AIDS Institute, and lives in New York City. He can be reached at email@example.com.