Bob Herbert, in his column
in today's N.Y. Times
, with a substantial assist from the research of Dr. Barbara Starfield
at Johns Hopkins, documents the comparative rankings of this country's health outcomes (e.g., low birth weight percentages, neonatal mortality, infant mortality, life expectancy at age 1 and at age 15):
"Of 13 countries in a recent comparison, the United States ranks an average of 12th (second from the bottom) for 16 available health indicators."
[Dr. Starfield] said the U.S. came in 13th, dead last, in terms of low birth weight percentages; 13th for neonatal mortality and infant mortality over all; 13th for years of potential life lost (excluding external causes); 11th for life expectancy at the age of 1 for females and 12th for males; and 10th for life expectancy at the age of 15 for females and 12th for males.
The standard rejoinder is that the U.S.'s relatively poor showing in such comparisons is not a direct result of a poor health care delivery system but instead is due to the effects of poverty, differences in educational opportunities, and similar "background" effects that can't be cured by the health care system. At some point, however, our leaders (and those, like John Kerry, who aspire to be) need to come to grips with the organization, finance, and delivery of health care in this country. We have the most technically advanced health care in the world, and centers of excellence widely distributed across the country. But that doesn't translate into access and affordability:
The U.S. has the most expensive health care system on the planet, but millions of Americans without access to care die from illnesses that could have been successfully treated if diagnosed in time. Poor people line up at emergency rooms for care that should be provided in a doctor's office or clinic. Each year tens of thousands of men, women and children die from medical errors and many more are maimed. . . .
To get a sense of just how backward we're becoming on these matters, consider that in places like Texas, Florida and Mississippi the politicians are dreaming up new ways to remove the protective cloak of health coverage from children, the elderly and the poor. Texas and Florida have been pulling the plug on coverage for low-income kids. And Mississippi recently approved the deepest cut in Medicaid eligibility for senior citizens and the disabled that has ever been approved anywhere in the U.S.
Even the affluent are finding it more difficult to obtain access to care. For patients with insurance the route to treatment is often a confusing maze of gatekeepers and maddening regulations. The costs of insurance are shifting from employers to employees, and important health decisions are increasingly being made by bureaucrats and pitchmen interested solely in profits.
In the maddening din that passes for a national conversation in this country, distinguished voices like Dr. Starfield's are not easily heard.
Echoing so many other patient advocates, she continues to call for movement on two crucial needs: coverage for the many millions who currently do not have access to care, and the development of a first-rate primary care system, which would bring a sense of coherence to a health care environment that is both chaotic and wildly expensive.
Maybe the reforms described recently by Porter and Teisberg
in the May-June Harvard Business Review
are the way to go, though I see precious little in their proposal that directly addresses the uninsured, and primary care is only obliquely addressed.