The Best Health Care in the World – Part Three: What Do We Get for the Money?

March 17th, 2008 by

In Part One of this series, we began looking at some of the many cost disparities between group health and workers’ compensation.
In Part Two, we compared US health care costs with costs in the other 29 member-countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). OECD countries, all democracies, are considered the most economically advanced in the world. We saw that health care spending in the US is a breathtaking 250% greater than the average for all of these developed democracies. Moreover, as measured by Gross Domestic Product (GDP), health care made up 15.3% of the US economy in 2004 – up from 5.1% in 1960 – nearly double the rest of the OECD.
Today, it’s time to examine what we’re getting for all that money. It seems fair to ask a few questions relative to the other OECD countries:
1. Do we live longer?
2. Are we healthier?
3. What other factors could affect how the health of US citizens compares with OECD citizens?
Do we live longer than people in other OECD countries?
Simply put, we spend a lot more on healthcare than all other OECD countries, but don’t live any longer for the money. In fact, we live shorter lives than most.
As of 2004, average life expectancy at birth in the US was 77.5 years, which ranks 22nd out of the 30 OECD countries. While this is slightly below the OECD average, it is four and a half years less than top-ranked Japan. Also, it may surprise readers to learn that life expectancy is two and a half years longer among the people of our neighbor to the north, Canada. And, despite all the editorial bashing of the UK’s National Health System, its citizens outlast us by a full year, while people in Spain, France, and Italy live, on average, more than two years longer than we do.
Are we healthier?
For all the money we spend on healthcare one would think we enjoy Olympian health, but this does not appear to be the case. Although it pains me to write this, I can find no peer-reviewed studies that conclude that we are a healthier people than our OECD neighbors.
The OECD provides specific disease incidence data in two areas: cancer (malignant neoplasms) and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). In both cases, the US has the highest rates in the OECD. The incidence of cancer in the United States is 34% higher than the average within the OECD (358 cases per 100,000 people versus 266). With respect to AIDS, the US incidence is an astonishing 675% higher than the rest of the OECD (147 cases per 100,000 people versus 19 in the OECD). Our mortality rate due to AIDS ranks second in the OECD (4.2 deaths per 100,000 people, well behind the staggering rate of 8.6 in Portugal). Yet our mortality rate for cancer ranks only 14th among OECD countries.
What about obesity, reputed by many to be epidemic in the US? With the exception of the UK and the US, which get their obesity statistics by actually measuring people, OECD countries get their results from surveys, so the only fair comparison is the US versus the UK. In 2004, while the UK’s overweight population was 14% higher than that in the US, our obese population was 39% greater.
On the other hand, the US rate of alcohol consumption and incidence of daily smoking were both lower than the average for OECD countries (daily smoking in the US is the third lowest (17%) of all OECD members).
Unfortunately, obesity has been shown to be a greater driver of health care and health care spending than alcohol consumption or smoking – “the effects of obesity are similar to 20 years of aging (PDF).” According to Thorpe, et al, (The Impact of Obesity on Rising Medical Spending (PDF), Health Affairs, 20 October 2004), 27% of the per capita increase in US health care spending between 1987 and 2001 was attributable to obesity. There is a direct correlation between obesity and Type 2 diabetes and obesity and hypertension. Is it any wonder that in the last thirty years Type 2 diabetes and hypertension have seen explosive growth in the US?
What other factors could affect how the health of US citizens compares with OECD citizens?
There are many other factors that have been identified as influencing how the health of Americans compares with the rest of the OECD. Some of these are:
1. The age of our population – While this will be a concern in the immediate future as baby boomers grow older, currently 12% of the US population is older than 65, which is below the OECD average of 14%.
2. Income and insurance – The US is unique in the OECD, because it does not have a national insurance program. About 60% of us are covered by some form of employer-provided insurance. Another 26% are covered by Medicare or Medicaid. That leaves 14% who are uninsured in any way. Among this group, most of whom are poor and many of whom are sick, healthcare often goes a-begging, with harmful results. For example, hypertension is less controlled in this group, “sufficiently so that the annual likelihood of death in that group rose approximately 10%.” (Newhouse et al, Free for All? Lessons from the RAND Health Insurance Experiment, Harvard University Press, 1993).
Twenty-two OECD countries provide more than 98% of their citizens with public health insurance covering at least hospital and in-patient care. Despite this, Americans spend less out-of-pocket than the people of most other OECD countries – 13.2%. The OECD average is nearly 20%. Studies have shown that when a people pay less out-of-pocket for healthcare, total spending rises.
3. Sophisticated medical procedures – In the movie Pat and Mike, Spencer Tracy famously said of Katherine Hepburn, “There’s not much meat on her, but what there is is choice.” The same can be said for hospitalizations in the US. Although hospital stays are fewer and shorter, a lot of high-powered activity goes on.
For example, the US ranks in the top five OECD countries for the rate of caesarean section childbirths as well as all forms of organ transplants with the exception of lung transplants. Moreover, we’re in the top five for all four of the heart procedures on which the OECD collects data. We perform coronary bypass surgery and angioplasties at more than double the rate of the OECD average. Finally, we perform far more coronary revascularization procedures than any other OECD country. Despite performing substantially more invasive heart procedures than all other OECD countries, death rates for heart disease in the US are the 17th worst in the entire group.
4. Advertising – Between 1996 and 2003, pharmaceutical advertising quadrupled. Turn on the nightly news and count the ads for prescription drugs. Only two countries in the world allow this, the US and New Zealand. I find it amazing that more than 75% of the brands advertised had ROIs of more than 50%. Clearly, Americans respond to direct-to- consumer drug advertising, which is one reason why we spend double the OECD average on prescription drugs.
How does this all relate to workers’ compensation?
We’ve seen that, despite spending more on healthcare than any other country in the world, Americans don’t live longer or enjoy better health than citizens of any other OECD country. But every day, medicine practiced within workers’ compensation depends entirely on the US healthcare “system,” if we want to go so far as to call it that. It’s certainly systemic, but perhaps systemic in a lot of the wrong ways.
Prior entries in this series:
Part Two – What does it cost?
Part One: The best Health Care Plan in America

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