US healthcare is famous for three things

Wednesday, April 12th, 2017

US healthcare is famous for three things, Ben Southwood notes:

It’s expensive, it’s not universal, and it has poor outcomes. The US spends around $7,000 per person on healthcare every year, or roughly 18% of GDP; the next highest spender is Switzerland, which spends about $4,500. Before Obamacare, approx 15% of the US population were persistently uninsured (8.6% still are). And as this chart neatly shows, their overall outcome on the most important variable — overall life expectancy — is fairly poor.

But some of this criticism is wrongheaded and simplistic: when you slice the data up more reasonably, US outcomes look impressive, but being the world’s outrider is much more expensive than following behind. What’s more, most of the solutions people offer just don’t get to the heart of the issue: if you give people freedom they’ll spend a lot on healthcare.

The US undoubtedly spends a huge amount on healthcare. One popular narrative is that because of market failures and/or extreme overregulation in healthcare, prices are excessively high. So Americans with insurance (or covered by Medicare, the universal system for the elderly, or Medicaid, the government system for the poor) get the same as other developed world citizens, but those without get very poor care and die younger. A system like the NHS solves the problem, according to this view, with bulk buying of land, labour, and inputs, better incentives, and universal coverage.

But there are some serious flaws in this theory. Firstly, extending insurance to the previously-uninsured doesn’t, in America, seem to have large benefits. For example, a recent NBER paper found no overall health gains from the massive insurance expansion under Obamacare.* A famous RAND study found minuscule benefits over decades from giving out free insurance to previously uninsured in the 1970s. In fact, over and above the basics, insuring those who choose not to get insurance doesn’t ever seem to have large gains. Indeed, there is wide geographic variation in the life expectancy among the low income in the US, but this doesn’t even correlate with access to medical care! This makes it unlikely that the gap between the US and the rest is explained by universality.

To find the answer, consider the main two ingredients that go into health outcomes. One is health, and the other is treatment. If latent health is the same across the Western world, we can presume that any differences come from differences in treatment. But this is simply not the case. Obesity is far higher in the USA than in any other major developed country. Obviously it is a public health problem, but it’s unrealistic to blame it on the US system of paying for doctors, administrators, hospitals, equipment and drugs.

In fact in the US case it’s not even obesity, or indeed their greater pre-existing disease burden, that is doing most of the work in dragging their life expectancy down; it’s accidental and violent deaths. It is tragic that the US is so dangerous, but it’s not the fault of the healthcare system; indeed, it’s an extra burden that US healthcare spending must bear. Just simply normalising for violent and accidental death puts the USA right to the top of the life expectancy rankings.

One of our cultural problems, Arnold Kling adds, is that we spend too much on health care and not enough on public health.


  1. Ross says:


    Could be related in part (a la Mangan and Zacharski) to iron overload/iron-fortified food, which ramps glycation damage, etc.

    Maybe time to wake TF up about public health policy.

  2. Barnabas says:

    But nothing ever changes because of the corrupting influence of the Big Iron lobby.

  3. Adar says:

    Populations that suffer from chronic illness untreated for decades even and then when near death or disability seek care which mandates extreme and expensive measures. A little bit of preventative care can go a long way but is never availed.

  4. Barnabas says:

    I think you’ll find that the literature does not show much in the way of savings with preventative medical care.

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