Monday, January 12, 2009

"World's Best Medical Care" NY Times Editorial

I'm publishing the whole thing. The message is too important and too well-written to reduce to a summary. It first appeared August, 2007, With the start of a new administration it is again timely.

Many Americans are under the delusion that we have “the best health care system in the world,” as President Bush sees it, or provide the “best medical care in the world,” as Rudolph Giuliani declared last week. That may be true at many top medical centers. But the disturbing truth is that this country lags well behind other advanced nations in delivering timely and effective care.

Michael Moore struck a nerve in his new documentary, “Sicko,” when he extolled the virtues of the government-run health care systems in France, England, Canada and even Cuba while deploring the failures of the largely private insurance system in this country. There is no question that Mr. Moore overstated his case by making foreign systems look almost flawless. But there is a growing body of evidence that, by an array of pertinent yardsticks, the United States is a laggard not a leader in providing good medical care.

Seven years ago, the World Health Organization made the first major effort to rank the health systems of 191 nations. France and Italy took the top two spots; the United States was a dismal 37th. More recently, the highly regarded Commonwealth Fund has pioneered in comparing the United States with other advanced nations through surveys of patients and doctors and analysis of other data. Its latest report, issued in May, ranked the United States last or next-to-last compared with five other nations — Australia, Canada, Germany, New Zealand and the United Kingdom — on most measures of performance, including quality of care and access to it. Other comparative studies also put the United States in a relatively bad light.

Insurance coverage.

All other major industrialized nations provide universal health coverage, and most of them have comprehensive benefit packages with no cost-sharing by the patients. The United States, to its shame, has some 45 million people without health insurance and many more millions who have poor coverage. Although the president has blithely said that these people can always get treatment in an emergency room, many studies have shown that people without insurance postpone treatment until a minor illness becomes worse, harming their own health and imposing greater costs.


Citizens abroad often face long waits before they can get to see a specialist or undergo elective surgery. Americans typically get prompter attention, although Germany does better. The real barriers here are the costs facing low-income people without insurance or with skimpy coverage. But even Americans with above-average incomes find it more difficult than their counterparts abroad to get care on nights or weekends without going to an emergency room, and many report having to wait six days or more for an appointment with their own doctors.


The United States ranks dead last on almost all measures of equity because we have the greatest disparity in the quality of care given to richer and poorer citizens. Americans with below-average incomes are much less likely than their counterparts in other industrialized nations to see a doctor when sick, to fill prescriptions or to get needed tests and follow-up care.

Healthy lives.

We have known for years that America has a high infant mortality rate, so it is no surprise that we rank last among 23 nations by that yardstick. But the problem is much broader. We rank near the bottom in healthy life expectancy at age 60, and 15th among 19 countries in deaths from a wide range of illnesses that would not have been fatal if treated with timely and effective care. The good news is that we have done a better job than other industrialized nations in reducing smoking. The bad news is that our obesity epidemic is the worst in the world.


In a comparison with five other countries, the Commonwealth Fund ranked the United States first in providing the “right care” for a given condition as defined by standard clinical guidelines and gave it especially high marks for preventive care, like Pap smears and mammograms to detect early-stage cancers, and blood tests and cholesterol checks for hypertensive patients. But we scored poorly in coordinating the care of chronically ill patients, in protecting the safety of patients, and in meeting their needs and preferences, which drove our overall quality rating down to last place. American doctors and hospitals kill patients through surgical and medical mistakes more often than their counterparts in other industrialized nations.

Life and death.

In a comparison of five countries, the United States had the best survival rate for breast cancer, second best for cervical cancer and childhood leukemia, worst for kidney transplants, and almost-worst for liver transplants and colorectal cancer. In an eight-country comparison, the United States ranked last in years of potential life lost to circulatory diseases, respiratory diseases and diabetes and had the second highest death rate from bronchitis, asthma and emphysema. Although several factors can affect these results, it seems likely that the quality of care delivered was a significant contributor.

Patient satisfaction.

Despite the declarations of their political leaders, many Americans hold surprisingly negative views of their health care system. Polls in Europe and North America seven to nine years ago found that only 40 percent of Americans were satisfied with the nation’s health care system, placing us 14th out of 17 countries. In recent Commonwealth Fund surveys of five countries, American attitudes stand out as the most negative, with a third of the adults surveyed calling for rebuilding the entire system, compared with only 13 percent who feel that way in Britain and 14 percent in Canada.

That may be because Americans face higher out-of-pocket costs than citizens elsewhere, are less apt to have a long-term doctor, less able to see a doctor on the same day when sick, and less apt to get their questions answered or receive clear instructions from a doctor. On the other hand, Gallup polls in recent years have shown that three-quarters of the respondents in the United States, in Canada and in Britain rate their personal care as excellent or good, so it could be hard to motivate these people for the wholesale change sought by the disaffected.

Use of information technology.

Shockingly, despite our vaunted prowess in computers, software and the Internet, much of our health care system is still operating in the dark ages of paper records and handwritten scrawls. American primary care doctors lag years behind doctors in other advanced nations in adopting electronic medical records or prescribing medications electronically. This makes it harder to coordinate care, spot errors and adhere to standard clinical guidelines.

Top-of-the-line care.

Despite our poor showing in many international comparisons, it is doubtful that many Americans, faced with a life-threatening illness, would rather be treated elsewhere. We tend to think that our very best medical centers are the best in the world. But whether this is a realistic assessment or merely a cultural preference for the home team is difficult to say. Only when better measures of clinical excellence are developed will discerning medical shoppers know for sure who is the best of the best.


With health care emerging as a major issue in the presidential campaign and in Congress, it will be important to get beyond empty boasts that this country has “the best health care system in the world” and turn instead to fixing its very real defects. The main goal should be to reduce the huge number of uninsured, who are a major reason for our poor standing globally. But there is also plenty of room to improve our coordination of care, our use of computerized records, communications between doctors and patients, and dozens of other factors that impair the quality of care. The world’s most powerful economy should be able to provide a health care system that really is the best.

Another point not listed is portability.

Until we have a baseline of medical care that covers us between jobs (unemployment) and into the next one ("qualifying period") American goods and services will be at a mathematical disadvantage in a global economy. COBRA is an expensive joke. And "pre-existing conditions" is just another excuse to refuse medical care to populations needing it most.

Comment thread discussions elsewhere have helped me articulate the following.

There is no comparison between insurance premiums and health care expenses, whether socialistic or capitalistic. Insurance premiums are calculated for one reason alone: to deliver a black number on the profit line of a balance sheet which will yield a healthy per-share profit report for shareholders. Good insurance profits derive from rationing health care, making sure that the premiums collected will always exceed the expenses involved. The only way to accomplish that goal is to limit the number of big claims and push as many as possible onto other companies. Delivering health care is one part of the formula, but no more important than other operating expenses such as advertising, sales commissions and executive compensation.

Insurance companies insure, alright, but insuring corporate profits is more important than anything else being covered. There is a place for risk management in many areas (property damage, liability, robbery, loss of life, disability, etc.) but health care should not be on the list. In the case of health care, risk management is just another term for rationing. Competition among providers is good. Medical outcomes and statistical data reflecting a high level of community or individual health is the metric. But competition among insurers has litle to do with health care and everything to do with corporate profits.

America now has five different health care delivery systems, one of which, the VA, is “socialistic” by anyone’s understanding. Three others are Tri-care (for military and their families), FEHBP (for federal employees) and Medicare/Medicaid, managed (more or less) by CMS. The fifth “delivery system” if it can be called such, is the snatch-and-grab, messy, totally ineffective byproduct of the best health care system in the world by which the uninsured (read unemployed, not old enough for Medicare and those with chronic expensive and/or pre-existing conditions) receive whatever they are fortunate enough to get at the bottom of the system.

I’m all for operational profits.But I’m NOT in favor of making money by rationing health care, and that is the mission of insurance companies. It’s called by many names: PPO, HMO, managed care. More recently a Medicare spin-off called “Medicare Advantage” is a for-profit hybrid which costs more than Medicare.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I came to this website because my Democratic friends have told me how we are 28th or in health care among the free world. I wanted to know what the source of this was and you explained it very well. Now my reply to them will be that we rank low due to our lifesytle, our insurance plans, our wealth distribution, and our efforts to push the envelope with new techniques.

It appears to me that portability, elctronic records, and shared costs of insurance for the uninsured would make a big difference, as long as the Government is not involved would make a big difference. Truth be known, most of our current problems are caused by TOO much Government regulations. Perhaps some government leadership would be cool.

al johnson
Land o Lakes