By Sally Pipes
Published November 30, 2019
Do Americans live in a health care hellscape? A report out this week would seem to indicate as much – but that first impression is deceiving.
"U.S. life expectancy has not kept pace with that of other wealthy countries and is now decreasing," concluded the report, published by the medical journal JAMA. Or, as The Washington Post put it: "'There's something terribly wrong': Americans are dying young at alarming rates."
"Medicare-for-all" partisans have pounced on the research to declare the U.S. health care system an expensive failure – one in which we spend more than double what other developed nations devote to health care but die younger.
But statistics like these conceal as much as they reveal. A more thorough analysis shows that the American health care system outperforms its counterparts in other countries – particularly those that saddle their citizens with their own versions of “Medicare-for-all.”
Take life expectancy. The average baby born in the United States is expected to live just under 79 years. That's two years below the average life expectancy among developed nations. Or consider that the death rate among working-age people in the United States rose 6 percent between 2010 and 2017.
Many more people die of homicides in the United States than in other developed countries.
These bleak statistics ignore how people are dying. And that's crucial to evaluating a health care system.
Many more people die of homicides in the United States than in other developed countries. Our homicide rate two years ago was five deaths per 100,000 people. That same year, Canada had just two homicides per every 100,000 people; the United Kingdom had just one.
Americans are also more likely to die in car accidents. Per capita, there are four times as many deaths from car accidents in the United States as in the United Kingdom – and twice as many as in Canada.
Then there's the epidemic of drug overdoses. Between 1999 and 2017, working-age women saw their risk of death from overdoses increase six-fold. For men of that age, the risk of death by drug overdoses surged 351 percent.
It's hard to argue that the health care system is to blame for these deaths. But they have a significant impact on overall life expectancy.
According to economists Robert L. Ohsfeldt and John E. Schneider, the United States has a higher life expectancy than all other countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development – after accounting for fatal injuries.
When it comes to treating sick patients, it's clear that the American health care system outperforms single-payer systems. Consider cancer. Our five-year survival rate for prostate cancer is over 97 percent – more than most developed countries, including Canada, which has a survival rate of just over 91 percent, and the United Kingdom, with a survival rate of slightly more than 83 percent.
According to one study, American cancer patients live longer than people with the same diagnoses in 10 European countries, thanks in part to higher levels of spending on cancer care in the United States. That spending gives American patients access to the best treatments, medicines and technologies.
For example, the United States does a much better job screening for cancer. According to the World Health Organization, U.S. patients have better access to breast, cervical and colorectal cancer screenings than patients in Canada and the United Kingdom.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all people 50 and older get screened for colorectal cancer. Thanks in no small part to its inability to provide screening to all who need it, the United Kingdom's National Health Service only recommends screening for certain patients over 55.
We should not be surprised, then, that the overall survival rate for colorectal cancer in the United States is 65 percent – five percentage points higher than in the United Kingdom.
Far too many Americans are dying young. But a government takeover of the U.S. health care system is unlikely to address what's driving life expectancy.
In fact, it could consign many more people to needless suffering when they actually need care.