Sunday, November 23, 2008

5 Myths About Our Ailing Health-Care System

America has the best health care in the world.
Let's bury this one once and for all. The United States is No. 1 in only one sense: the amount we shell out for health care. We have the most expensive system in the world per capita, but we lag behind many developed countries on virtually every health statistic you can name. Life expectancy at birth? We rank near the bottom of countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, just ahead of Cuba and way behind Japan, France, Italy, Sweden and Canada, countries whose governments (gasp!) pay for the lion's share of health care. Infant mortality in the United States is 6.8 per 1,000 births, more than twice as high as in Japan, Norway and Sweden and worse than in Poland and Hungary. We're doing a better job than most on reducing smoking rates, but our obesity epidemic is out of control, our death rate from prostate cancer is only slightly lower than the United Kingdom's, and in at least one study, American heart attack patients did no better than Swedish patients, even though the Americans got twice as many high-tech treatments.

Moreover, the quality of health care is different in different parts of the country. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services have issued a list of 26 measures of quality, such as making sure that heart-attack patients being discharged from the hospital get a prescription for a beta blocker or aspirin to help reduce the risk of a second attack. It turns out that quality is all over the map, and it isn't necessarily better in the places we might expect, such as academic medical centers. Worse still, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), there appears to be no connection between how much Medicare and other payers spend on patients in different parts of the country and the quality of the care the patients receive. You are no more likely to get that beta blocker or aspirin in Los Angeles than in Portland, even though Medicare spends twice as much per beneficiary in Los Angeles.
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