One of the wrong questions you will hear raised in the upcoming health care debate is this one: Aren’t the poor outcomes in health care in the United States all the fault of the bad health choices Americans make? Stated baldly: “It’s not our fault, it’s those irresponsible citizens who account for the bad health care outcomes.” As it happens at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University researchers Peter A. Muennig and Sherry A. Glied, asked just this question. They compared the health care systems of 13 first world nations, including the United States, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland.
Their study, which covers the years 1975 to 2005, is particularly important, not only because it is recent and well designed, but because in addition to health care expenditures in each country, it focuses on 15-year survival for people at 45 years and for those at 65 years. As they say in their report published in the November Health Affairs journal:
Many advocates of U.S. health reform point to the nation’s relatively low life expectancy rankings as evidence that the health care system is performing poorly. Others say that poor U.S. health outcomes are largely due not to health care but to high rates of smoking, obesity, traffic fatalities and homicides. We used cross-national data on the 15-year survival of men and women over three decades to examine the validity of these arguments. We found that the risk profiles of Americans generally improved relative to those for citizens of many other nations, but Americans’ relative 15-year survival has nevertheless been declining. For example, by 2005, fifteen-year survival rates for 45-year-old U.S. white women were lower than in 12 comparison countries with populations of at least 7 million and per capita gross domestic product (GDP) of at least 60 percent of U.S. per capita GDP in 1975. The findings undercut critics who might argue that the U.S. health care system is not in need of major changes.
Nicholas Bakalar, writing about the 30 years of the study in the The New York Times said:
In 1975 the United States was close to the average in health care costs, and last in 15-year survival for 45-year-old men. By 2005 its costs had more than tripled, far surpassing increases elsewhere, but the survival number was still last — a little over 90 percent, compared with more than 94 percent for Swedes, Swiss and Australians. For women, it was 94 percent in the United States, versus 97 percent in Switzerland, Australia and Japan.
The numbers for 65-year-olds in 2005 were similar: About 58 percent of American men could be expected to survive 15 years, compared with more than 65 percent of Australians, Japanese and Swiss. While more than 80 percent of 65-year-old women in France, Switzerland and Japan would survive 15 years, only about 70 percent of American women could be expected to live that long.