Ranking 37th — Measuring the Performance of the U.S. Health Care System

– A quote from the article, below:

Despite the claim by many in the U.S. health policy community that international comparison is not useful because of the uniqueness of the United States, the rankings have figured prominently in many arenas. It is hard to ignore that in 2006, the United States was number 1 in terms of health care spending per capita but ranked 39th for infant mortality, 43rd for adult female mortality, 42nd for adult male mortality, and 36th for life expectancy. These facts have fueled a question now being discussed in academic circles, as well as by government and the public: Why do we spend so much to get so little?

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Evidence that other countries perform better than the United States in ensuring the health of their populations is a sure prod to the reformist impulse. The World Health Report 2000, Health Systems: Improving Performance, ranked the U.S. health care system 37th in the world1 — a result that has been discussed frequently during the current debate on U.S. health care reform.

The conceptual framework underlying the rankings2 proposed that health systems should be assessed by comparing the extent to which investments in public health and medical care were contributing to critical social objectives: improving health, reducing health disparities, protecting households from impoverishment due to medical expenses, and providing responsive services that respect the dignity of patients. Despite the limitations of the available data, those who compiled the report undertook the task of applying this framework to a quantitative assessment of the performance of 191 national health care systems. These comparisons prompted extensive media coverage and political debate in many countries. In some, such as Mexico, they catalyzed the enactment of far-reaching reforms aimed at achieving universal health coverage. The comparative analysis of performance also triggered intense academic debate, which led to proposals for better performance assessment.

Despite the claim by many in the U.S. health policy community that international comparison is not useful because of the uniqueness of the United States, the rankings have figured prominently in many arenas. It is hard to ignore that in 2006, the United States was number 1 in terms of health care spending per capita but ranked 39th for infant mortality, 43rd for adult female mortality, 42nd for adult male mortality, and 36th for life expectancy.3 These facts have fueled a question now being discussed in academic circles, as well as by government and the public: Why do we spend so much to get so little?

Comparisons also reveal that the United States is falling farther behind each year (see graph). In 1974, mortality among boys and men 15 to 60 years of age was nearly the same in Australia and the United States and was one third lower in Sweden. Every year since 1974, the rate of death decreased more in Australia than it did in the United States, and in 2006, Australia’s rate dipped lower than Sweden’s and was 40% lower than the U.S. rate. There are no published studies investigating the combination of policies and programs that might account for the marked progress in Australia. But the comparison makes clear that U.S. performance not only is poor at any given moment but also is improving much more slowly than that of other countries over time. These observations and the reflections they should trigger are made possible only by careful comparative quantification of various facets of health care systems.

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