Most Americans accept the concept of American exceptionalism, described as “the belief that the United States is an extraordinary nation with a special role to play in human history; a nation that is not only unique but also superior.”
Being exceptional, though, can have a less positive meaning, as in “The Boston Red Sox had an exceptionally bad September!”
So how exceptional is American health care? Exceptionally good in some respects, but exceptionally bad (and getting worse) in many others.
On Tuesday, the Commonwealth Fund released the results from its 2011 scorecard on the performance of the U.S. health care system, and for the most part it isn't good.
My colleague, Anna Stoto, was present when the report was released by the Commonwealth Fund, and this is her account:
“Unfortunately, the results of the latest scorecard were grim – though the US demonstrated some improvement in quality indicators, the health care system fell short of achievable goals overall. While the US continues to lead in per-capita spending, overall performance failed to improve between 2006 and 2011. The scorecard examined five dimensions of health system performance, measured across 42 indicators: Healthy Lives, Quality, Access, Efficiency and Equity. Scores are simple ratios of the US average to benchmarks, which are levels achieved by other countries or top US states, regions, health plans, or providers.
Several troubling findings emerged from the report:
· There were steep declines in access and affordability between 2006 and 2011, particularly as health care costs have risen higher in relation to incomes. The 2011 report demonstrated that the United States is losing states where premiums were relatively more affordable – employer premiums now represent 18% or more of median household income in half of the country.
· The system demonstrated a lack of equity overall – there is considerable variation in care across the US, and there are now 15 states where 1 in 4 adults do not have insurance.
· Many costs are going toward inefficient care, resulting in numerous preventable deaths and a constant churning of patients in and out of hospitals. Incentives must be aligned so that it makes good business sense to improve hospital readmissions.
Access proved to be the keystone of the report’s findings, as it is related to quality, costs, and efficiency. The Commission on a High Performance Health System, which produced the report, focused on better primary care and primary care coordination as the tools to improve and identified the need to work across teams that span the health care system. Reforms created by the Affordable Care Act are also expected to help improve access, reduce variations, emphasize primary care, and create greater accountability for health and cost outcomes. Notably, the 2011 report was based on 2009 data” (so it does not reflect changes made by the Affordable Care Act, which became law in March, 2010, and has only been partially implemented).
The Commonwealth Fund has prepared a sobering set of slides that show how the United States did on key indicators.
Some of the areas where the United States doesn’t do so well may reflect cultural and socioeconomic characteristics that may be at least partially outside the control of the health care system itself—like infant mortality, for instance—or that have been exacerbated by the prolonged economic downturn (like increases in the percentage of insured persons).
But these explanations don’t change the fact that the United States is “exceptional”—not in a good way—on many dimensions that are largely due to the health care system itself.
We spend far more than any other industrialized country, but we are second to last in visits to emergency rooms that could have been treated by a regular doctor, dead last on test results and medical records being available at the time of an appointment, worst on duplicate testing, worst on access problems relating to cost, third to last out of eight countries on getting access to care after hours, second to last on getting same day doctor appointments, worst on medical errors—and we spend the most on insurance administration!
The report card doesn’t just compare us to other countries, but presents benchmarks on variations in care within the United States compared to generally accepted measures of best outcomes—and for the most part we don’t measure up well here either.
I expect that some readers of this blog will respond by saying that they provide excellent care to their patients—and I have no doubt about that. They will point out that rich people in other countries sometimes come to the United States for care because we have the best to offer—and I have no doubt about that either.
But the evidence shows that although the United States provides the best of all possible care to some of the people, some of the time, for many of the people, much of the time, the care falls far short of what is needed. This isn’t the fault of American physicians, who struggle to provide their patients with the best care possible, but with a system that costs too much and yet too often fails to deliver.
It doesn’t do any good for us to sweep these problems under the rug. Saying that we have the best health care system in the world doesn’t make it true. And if you believe, as I do, in American Exceptionalism, wouldn’t you want our health care system to be exceptionally superior to everywhere else in the world, and to fight for reforms to make it so?
Today’s question: What is your reaction to the evidence that the American health care system is exceptional—but often not in a good way?