Ranking American Health Care is a Con
It is curious that the United States ranked below Europe in the World Health Organization’s 2000 World Health Report, which rated 191 countries’ medical systems. In his documentary Sicko, socialist Michael Moore makes hay out of the fact the United States placed 37th, behind even Morocco, Cyprus, and Costa Rica. This ranking is used to “prove” state-controlled health care is superior to the “free market.”
This ranking is curious because actual life expectancy for the average American differs very little from that of the average European. At birth, average life expectancy in the European Union is 78.7. For the average American it is 78. And this doesn’t adjust for factors that can affect the averages which are unrelated to health care, such as lifestyle choices, accident rates, crime rates, and immigration. Health isn’t entirely about longevity but it certainly is a major component.
What is not mentioned by Moore, or others citing the WHO report, are the measures being used to rate the various countries and who is doing the measuring. There are many ways to nudge ratings in one direction or another that are not directly related to the actual item being measured.
For instance, one might produce a study on transportation. The purpose of transportation is to get people from where they are to where they wish to be. You might rate how quickly people can move, how cheaply they can move relative to their income, how conveniently they can move, and how free they are to move.
You would think the United States would rate high in such a study. Americans tend to be wealthier than the rest of the world. There is widespread ownership of cars. Gasoline prices are lower than in most other countries. On average, the typical American can travel quicker, cheaper, and more conveniently than people in most parts of the world. But what if this index included other factors as well? For instance, if a major component was the percentage of commuters who use public transportation, that would push the United States far down in the ranking. A larger percentage of the people in other countries have no other option but public transportation.
In 2000, when the report was issued, WHO was run by Gro Harlem Brundtland, a former prime minister of Norway and a socialist. She doesn’t think the results of a health system alone are important. Rather, she wants to know if the system is “fair.” In introducing the WHO report she wrote that while the goal of a health system “is to improve and protect health,” it also has “other intrinsic goals [that] are concerned with fairness in the way people pay for health care.” She is clear about the ideological factors she thinks are important: “Where health and responsiveness are concerned, achieving a high average level is not good enough: the goals of a health system must also include reducing inequalities, in ways that improve the situation of the worst-off. In this report attainment in relation to these goals provides the basis for measuring the performance of health systems.”
True to her ideological roots, Brundtland prefers socialized medicine over private care. Drawing her first conclusion about what makes a good medical system, she declares: “Ultimate responsibility for the performance of a country’s health system lies with government. The careful and responsible management of the well-being of the population — stewardship — is the very essence of good government. The health of people is always a national priority: government responsibility for it is continuous and permanent.”
One WHO discussion paper states, regarding “fairness” in financing, “we consider only the distribution, not the level, as there is no consensus on what the level of health spending should be.” Equal results, not necessarily good results, are the focus.
When Moore or others refer to the WHO index as proof private health care doesn’t work, they aren’t being totally honest because they fail to disclose the index lowers the scores of systems that don’t satisfy socialist presumptions.
A Second Rigged Study
The New York Times in August (2007) editorialized that American health care “lags well behind other advanced nations.” The newspaper relied in part on the WHO rankings as proof. For the rest, it relied on a more recent study by the Commonwealth Fund. But that study, which compared the United States to five other wealthy countries, has weaknesses similar to the WHO study.
The Commonwealth Fund marked down the United States partly because “All other major industrialized nations provide universal health coverage, and most of them have comprehensive benefits packages with no cost-sharing by the patients.” Again the American system loses points because it doesn’t provide socialized medicine. And the Times neglected to note that “no cost-sharing” means the people have paid through taxes whether they receive the care or not.
The United States was also penalized because seeing a physician for non-emergency reasons is harder to do on nights and weekends than in the other five nations. The Fund said “many report having to wait six days or more for an appointment with their own doctors.”
The survey didn’t look at the treatment of serious conditions. Waiting weeks or months for chemotherapy is not held against a health-care system, but waiting a few days to have a check up is. Waiting time for “elective” surgery is counted (the United States was a close second to Germany), but waiting time for non-elective, serious surgery did not count, though that is precisely where socialist systems do the worst.
This issue is not unknown to the Commonwealth Fund. In 1999 it published The Elderly’s Experiences with Health Care in Five Nations, which found significant delays for “serious surgery.” Only 4 percent of the American seniors reported long waits for serious surgery. The rate was 11 percent in Canada and 13 percent in Britain. For non-serious surgery the differences were more obvious: 7 percent in the United States, 40 percent in Canada, and 51 percent in Britain.
In the latest survey, the United States came in dead last for health “safety,” but many of the scores were only a few points apart. For instance, 15 percent of American patients said they “believed a medical mistake” had been made in their treatment within the last two years. Notice this is merely patient perception and nothing objective. But the best score was in Britain, where 12 percent said this.
The United States is also marked down because 23 percent of patients report delayed or incorrect results on medical tests they took. That is far worse than the best country, Germany, at 9 percent. But what constitutes a delay? If a result is expected in a week but takes two, that is a delay. But, if it is expected in three weeks and arrives then, that isn’t a delay. Thus what constitutes a delay depends on expectations, leading to counter-intuitive results.
The United States also lost credit because fewer Americans report having a regular doctor for five years or more. But Americans are more mobile than many other people. CNN reported Americans move every five years on average. In comparison, Britain has a moving rate of 10 percent a year, or an average of once a decade. And 60 percent of those move about three miles.
Freer to Change Doctors
Americans are also freer to change doctors if they wish. Britain requires patients to sign up with physicians, and once they do so, they are pretty much stuck unless they want to end up on the waiting list of another physician. Patients often have to wait to get on the books of a physician and only then can they be treated; that is, they wait to get on a wait list. This is true even for heart transplants. The inevitable waiting is a disincentive to change doctors.
Another measure used by the Commonwealth Fund is centralization of medical records. If a country has a system allowing doctors anywhere to tap into the patients’ records, it is rated higher. The United States has no centralized database and so is rated lower. Many Americans may prefer to have their records private and dispersed. When the Clinton plan was proposed in 1993, one of the rallying points that helped defeat it was the centralization of health records.
Out-of-pocket expenses were counted against a system as well. In socialized health care these expenses are zero or very low but are replaced with taxes. Taxes, however, don’t lower a country’s score because the care “is free.”
Countries were also judged on the number of patient complaints. But different cultures have different attitudes toward complaining. Jeremy Laurance recently wrote in the Belfast Telegraph that the National Health Service needs “a healthy dose of American belligerence.”
Finally, the United States is ranked last among the six nations surveyed in infant mortality. What is not discussed is nations define infant mortality differently. Any infant, regardless of size or weight or premature status, who shows sign of life is counted as a live birth in the United States. Germany, which ranks number one in the Commonwealth Fund survey, doesn’t count as a live birth any infant with a birth weight under 500 grams (one pound). How valuable is a comparison under those circumstances?
One could easily design a survey that would rank American health care high and other nations low. But this does not mean the American system is what it should be. Its successes and innovation can be attributed to the vestiges of freedom, but government has saddled the system with so much intervention that it is far from market oriented. Instead of worrying about irrelevant international rankings, we should be working toward freeing the medical market.
Originally published in The Freeman, November 2007.