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Is Health Care Killing Us?

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Maggie Fox, Health and Science Editor at Reuters, is reporting that a recent study suggests that Americans die sooner than citizens of a dozen other developed nations and the usual suspects ' obesity, traffic accidents and a high murder rate ' are not to blame. Instead, poor health care may be the cause.

A team of medical researchers at Columbia University in New York found that 15-year survival rates for men and women ages 45 to 65 have fallen in the United States relative to the other 12 countries over the past 30 years. Such figures are frequently cited by supporters of health care reform, and critics often point out that the United States also has higher rates of obesity, more traffic fatalities and more murders than these countries. However, this study accounted for these factors and the results indicate that they are not the culprits.

In June, the Commonwealth Fund, which advocates on and does research focusing on health care reform, reported that Americans spend twice as much on health care as residents of other developed countries $7,290 per person but get lower quality and less efficiency. The study compared the United States to Australia, Austria, Belgium, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland. All these countries provide universal health insurance, in contrast to the United States, where 15 percent of the population lacks health insurance, although health care reform passed in March is designed to lower that disparity.

Between 1975 and 2005, medical costs went up in all the countries, as did life expectancy. But costs went up far more in the United States and life expectancy increased to a far lower degree. "The findings undercut critics who might argue that the U.S. health care system is not in need of major changes," the researchers wrote. "In 1950, the United States was fifth among the leading industrialized nations with respect to female life expectancy at birth, surpassed only by Sweden, Norway, Australia, and the Netherlands. At last count, the United States was 46th in female life expectancy; 49th for both sexes.

As pundits, politicians and providers continue to argue about what needs to be done, patients and consumers are increasingly taking matters into their own hands and seeking out the support and assistance they need wherever they can get it. Many are going online. For the first time ever, more people more than 170 million of them are turning to electronic resources than they are to doctors, for health information and supports. Many patients are indicating that they are satisfied and benefited by the help they are getting online.

Unfortunately, the majority of these online supports, tools and aides are developed outside the traditional health care or public health systems. If this trend continues, and it shows no signs of abating, the formal health care and public health systems will eventually become the systems of surveillance, emergencies, pills and procedures for those rich enough to pay. Everything else that people need to manage their health and health care conveniently will be 'provided' by social, health and health care entrepreneurs. The real question before us then is, 'Will health care lead the health care transformation or will we follow?

More Blog Posts by Chris Gibbons

author bio

Chris Gibbons, MD, MPH, is the associate director of the Johns Hopkins Urban Health Institute, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Community Health, and holds faculty appointments at the Johns Hopkins Schools of Medicine and Public Health. Dr. Gibbons is the Chair of CFAH's Board of Trustees. He blogs on the Healthcare Disparities Solutions Blog, a blog about healthIT innovation for disparities solutions. Want to read more from Dr. Gibbons? Subscribe to the RSS feed.


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