Fact and Fiction: Debunking Myths in the US Healthcare System

Umut Sarpel, MD; Bruce C. Vladeck, PhD; Celia M. Divino, MD; Paul E. Klotman, MD


Annals of Surgery. 2008;247(4):563-569. 

In This Article

Myth 1: The US Healthcare System Is the Best in the World

This idea has been called the alpha myth because it is fundamentally the root of all other myths.[1] It is the straightforward belief that Americans have access to the highest quality healthcare available in the world. A different way to present this myth is to state that citizens in other countries experience long waits for healthcare, that they must rely on generalists, and that they suffer worse outcomes as a result.

This belief is widespread and well-entrenched in the American mindset. So it is perhaps surprising that in a 10-nation 1990 survey on the level of satisfaction with the national healthcare system, the United States ranked 10th.[2] These results were then reproduced a decade later.[3] Although Americans believe the US system is the best, clearly they are not as satisfied with the healthcare they receive as are citizens of other countries.

In fact, this disparity between perception and reality has been captured in several studies. In the year 2000, the World Health Organization (WHO) dedicated its annual World Health Report to a comparison of healthcare across the globe.[4] In this exhaustive analysis, American superiority was not borne out: the United States ranked 32nd for infant survival, 24th for life expectancy, and 54th for fairness. The fairness ranking was derived from a comparison of the individual financial contribution required with the quality of healthcare received. The current US system is known as a regressive system; that is, the poor pay relatively more for healthcare. In fact, the poorest fifth of Americans spend 18% of their income on healthcare, whereas the richest fifth of Americans spend about 3%.[5] In this type of regressive system, it is clear why about 50% of personal bankruptcies in the United States are related to medical bills.[6] Tragically, 75% of individuals declaring medical bankruptcy had medical insurance at the onset of their illness.[6] Overall, the WHO ranked the United States 37th in the world.

Similar results were found by the Commonwealth Fund in a recently released scorecard on the performance of the US health system.[7] Outcomes in the United States were compared against those achieved by top countries or the top 10% of US states, hospitals, or other providers. The scorecard evaluated multiple indicators of health outcomes, including mortality, life expectancy, and the prevalence of health conditions that limit the capacity of adults to work or children to learn. The average ratio score for the United States was a 69 out of a possible 100.[7] The United States ranked 15th out of 19 countries with respect to preventable deaths before the age of 75, with a death rate more than 40% higher than the benchmark countries of France, Japan, and Spain. The United States ranked last in infant mortality out of 23 industrialized countries, with rates more than double the benchmark countries of Iceland, Japan, and Finland. The United States tied for last on healthy life expectancy at age 60.[7]

Despite these mediocre results in objective parameters of health outcomes, the United States spends far more than any other country for its healthcare. In 2000 the United States spent 13% of its gross domestic product on national health expenditures.[8] The next highest spending countries were Germany at 10.6% and France at 9.5%. In a graph of life expectancy versus health spending per capita, the United States falls far off the curve, both spending more and gaining less than other countries.[4] Another example of this contradiction is seen in the outcome of patients on hemodialysis. Although there are more hemodialysis centers per capita in the United States,[9] when end-stage renal disease patients were matched for severity of disease in Canada and the United States, patients in the United States were less likely to receive a kidney transplant and also had a higher mortality rate while on hemodialysis.[10]


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