Misplaced American Healthcare Exceptionalism

Uncle Sam, Healthcare, participation trophy
Uncle Sam earns a participation trophy for health care.
Photo credit: DonkeyHotey / WhoWhatWhy (CC BY-SA 2.0). See complete attribution below.

A popular myth perpetuated about the US healthcare system is that it is “the best in the world” and the “envy” of other nations.

The people saying these things are absolutely right. The US healthcare system is the best … for the richest of the rich, pharmaceutical companies, specialist doctors and the insurance industry. And it is the envy of other nations … but only impoverished countries such as Sudan, Haiti and Syria.

However, if the US system is compared to the rest of the industrialized world, Uncle Sam gets only a participation trophy. And if Americans had any idea of what healthcare systems in other countries offer — and at what cost — they would rightfully revolt.

The truth is, the US is really tops in only one key category: per capita healthcare costs. On average, Americans pay more than $9,000 annually. That is more than twice the amount people in the rest of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries are paying on average.

But while Americans are spending more, they are getting less. The US is mediocre when it comes to healthcare-related statistics, such as life expectancy, density of physicians, hospital beds per capita, and many more. In others, for example infant mortality, the US lags behind its peers.

And it’s not just the quality of care that is lacking. Though the Affordable Care Act reduced the number of uninsured in the US, nearly 30 million Americans still don’t have health insurance. That’s almost 9% of the population. That’s woeful compared to the rest of OECD countries, all but three of which provide their population with universal or near-universal health coverage.

So if the US insures a lower percentage of its population and only provides average care — which in some areas is a charitable description — why does it spend more than 17% of its entire GDP (more than $3 trillion annually) on healthcare-related expenses? And why are Americans kept in the dark about paying so much more for less?

One major reason is that prescription drugs and services from specialist physicians cost twice as much in the US than elsewhere. And it is the lobbying of those two groups, as well as that of the insurance industry (and a few other high-stakes players), that has contributed to a healthcare system that works best for providers instead of consumers.

Their lobbying has helped to pull the wool over the eyes of Americans with regard to the quality of their healthcare — or how difficult it would be to improve the system.

While it is correct that every country faces unique circumstances, and that the size of the US poses certain challenges, dozens of other countries are managing to do much more with much less. Yet US lawmakers are refusing to look elsewhere for inspiration.

And Americans are literally paying for it — with their wallets and their health.

The cartoon above was created by DonkeyHotey for WhoWhatWhy from these images: Uncle Sam (Carol M. Highsmith Archive / Library of Congress), trophy (National Photo Company Collection / Library of Congress), Capitol rotunda (Farragutful / Wikimedia – CC BY-SA 3.0) and caduceus (Rama / Wikimedia).

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