Hiltzik: U.S. health care lacking, but improving

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The U.S. health care system notched another dubious honor in a new comparison of its quality to the systems of 10 other developed countries: its rank was dead last.

The new study by the Commonwealth Fund ranks the United States against seven wealthy European countries and Canada, Australia and New Zealand. It’s a follow-up of previous surveys published in 2010, 2007, 2006 and 2004 — in all of which the U.S. also ranked last. Although the United States ranked in the middle of the pack on measures of effectiveness, safety and coordination of care, it ranked dead last on access and cost, by a sufficient enough margin to rank dead last overall.

Conservative pundits hastened to explain away these results after the report was published.

In the conservative Washington Examiner, for instance, Philip Klein complains that the study is “rigged to produce a result that favors socialized health care systems.” He observes, accurately, that the low ranking for the United States results heavily from its lack of universal health care and thus scores low on “equity.” He doesn’t seem to think that’s a bad thing. “It’s an ideological decision to view equity as one of the most important factors in judging a health care system,” he writes.

So there you have it: The principle that health care should be available to all is just “ideology.” It doesn’t matter if a huge percentage of your citizens can’t get health care, as long as the people with access do all right.

Klein also objects that Britain ranks first, despite its falling behind the United States in several medical outcomes measures. This is a point made frequently by apologists for the American system, but it’s highly misleading. Typically, they rely on survival rates — the time after diagnosis that the patient remains alive.

Experts view survival rates as a poor substitute for the really important metric, mortality rates. That’s because survival rates are very sensitive to the lead time of a diagnosis — the earlier it’s made in the progress of a disease, the better the survival rate. But that often has no effect on mortality.

The phenomenon can be viewed through statistics on breast cancer. American women have a 97 percent chance of surviving five years after a breast cancer diagnosis is made; British women only 85 percent.

That’s because American standards call for annual or biannual mammography tests beginning at age 40, while British doctors perform them every three years beginning at age 50. So American doctors will spot cancer at an earlier stage. But that has almost no measurable effect on a woman’s likelihood of dying from breast cancer. That figure is about 24.5 per 100,000 population in Britain, 22.6 in the United States.

Numerous factors account for the difference, including the diagnostic pattern. But the American system is vastly more expensive and much more likely to throw up false positives. Plainly, it contributes to another glaring difference between the British and American systems: Britain spends $3,405 per capita on health care, the U.S. $8,500. (The figures are from 2011.)

For that money, the U.S. gets almost no commensurate advantage in overall health.

Americans have a shorter life expectancy than people in almost all high-income countries. Among other factors not to be proud of, the United States has the highest infant mortality rate in the group.

The good news in the Commonwealth Fund report is that some of the factors driving the U.S. rank into the cellar are beginning to change, due in part to the Affordable Care Act and provisions of the post-2008 stimulus plan, which encouraged the adoption of health information technology by doctors and hospitals.

The Affordable Care Act, of course, has materially narrowed the gap between America’s health care haves and have-nots. “With the enactment of health reform,” the Commonwealth Fund says, “the United States should be able to make significant strides in improving the delivery, coordination and equity of the health care system in coming years.”

That presupposes that the trends launched by the act continue. Some conservatives no doubt will be making a last stand, insisting to the end that America has “the best health care in the world,” despite solid evidence that its outcomes are mediocre to poor — even for those lucky enough to have access to it.


Michael Hiltzik is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Email: mhiltzik@latimes.com.