According to the latest statistics from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the United States ranks 29th in the world in infant mortality, tying Slovakia and Poland but lagging behind Cuba and most developed nations. While Singapore has only two infant deaths per 1000 births, the US loses 6.9 infants per 1000, more than three times the Singapore rate. To make matters worse, the mortality rate in the US seems to be slipping ever lower in the rankings year by year. Back in 1960, the US ranked in 12th place with 26 infants dying per 1000; and although far fewer infants die at birth now, other nations have improved considerably more than the US in the intervening years.
A closer look at the numbers reveals a yawning gulf based on race, with the mortality rate for black Americans more than twice the rate for Caucasians (13.6 versus 5.7). Also, the rate of premature births has jumped some 10% in the US, rising from 11.6% to 12.7% between 2000 and 2005.
Embarrassing as these stats are, they pale in comparison to the rankings for overall life expectancy in the US, where the US ranks only 45th in the world, behind countries such as Guam, Bosnia, and the Cayman Islands — dropping three places in the last year alone.
In fact, the US scores poorly on most measures for quality-of-life compared to other developed nations. Among “rich” countries, the US places a pathetic second from the bottom of the list in child well-being, which includes measures for health, safety, educational opportunities, and overall quality of life. In that category, the US comes in at 19 out of 20.
But that’s not the best part. Here’s the real shocker. According to the World Health Organization, which measures performance of health care systems worldwide on eight parameters, the US ranks 72nd in the world. This puts it squarely behind Sri Lanka, Panama, and Saint Lucia, and just one place ahead of Bhutan. And yet, the US spends more per capita on healthcare than any other country in the world. In fact, at $2.4 trillion per year, the US spends more on health care, than the gross domestic product of all but six countries in the entire world.
In the words of Dr. Christopher Murray, head of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, “Something’s wrong here when one of the richest countries in the world, the one that spends the most on health care, is not able to keep up with other countries.” That’s an understatement, Dr. Murray! But just what is it that’s gone so very wrong in the US healthcare system?
Researchers blame a variety of factors. For one thing, they point to the fact that the US leads the world in obesity rates, with two-thirds of all adults overweight and one-third obese. Experts say Americans have easy access to food compared to poorer nations, because US citizens are rich with lots of junk food available.
“The U.S. has the resources that allow people to get fat and lazy,” said Paul Terry, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Emory University in Atlanta. “We have the luxury of choosing a bad lifestyle as opposed to having one imposed on us by hard times.”
Nice try! But the fact is that the people dying earliest and suffering the most aren’t the wealthy in America. It’s the minorities and the poor. Blacks in the US live five years less than Caucasians. The 45 million people in the US who lack health insurance tend to be among the poor and the non-whites. Where most developed nations in the world offer universal healthcare to all, the US offers it only to those who can afford it or who have jobs that offer it.
Then again, what the experts don’t talk about is the fact that the entire focus of healthcare in the US is skewed. Since the US spends so much on healthcare, the question becomes just where do those dollars go if the spending isn’t making people any healthier? Many health plans still don’t cover alternative treatments, or they cover just the minimum — chiropractic, but not naturopathy, for instance — pharmaceuticals, but not herbal supplements. The emphasis throughout the US healthcare system is on high-cost intervention and treatment, and not on prevention, in spite of lip service to the contrary. Education about what really creates good health is not readily available, especially to those without money — but advertising for drugs bombards us all equally.
And the focus on the pharmaceutical model in the US healthcare system creates as many health problems as it solves, with 100,000 deaths and at least 2,000,000 injuries each year directly attributable to prescription drugs. The emphasis on drugs creates a widespread mindset that it’s okay to indulge in poor health habits because everything can be fixed with a pill.
Healthcare in the US is a disaster compared to other developed nations. Those living in the states would be wise to educate themselves about health, focus on prevention, and take matters into their own hands instead of relying on the healthcare system to take care of them after years of self abuse. And no new administration is going to change that — no matter how they modify the healthcare system.