U.S. Health in International Perspective: Shorter Lives, Poorer Health

U.S. Health in International Perspective: Shorter Lives, Poorer Health

Institute of Medicine, January 2013

The United States is among the wealthiest nations in the world, but it is far from the healthiest. Although Americans' life expectancy and health have improved over the past century, these gains have lagged behind those of other high-income countries. This health disadvantage prevails even though the United states spends far more per person on health care than any other nation.

To gain a better understanding of this problem, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) asked the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine to convene a panel of experts to investigate potential reasons for the U.S. health disadvantage and to assess larger implications. The panel's findings are detailed in its report, U.S. Health in International Perspective: Shorter Lives, Poorer Health.

The panel was struck by the gravity of its findings. For many years, Americans have been dying at younger ages than people in almost all other high-income countries. This disadvantage has been getting worse for three decades, especially among women.

When compared with the average of peer countries, Americans as a group fare worse in at least nine health areas:

* infant mortality and low birth weight

* injuries and homicides

* adolescent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections

* HIV and AIDS

* drug-related deaths

* obesity and diabetes

* heart disease

* chronic lung disease

* disability

Many of these conditions have a particularly profound effect on young people, reducing the odds that  Americans will live to age 50. And for those who reach age 50, these conditions contribute to poorer health and greater illness later in life.

The United States does enjoy a few health advantages when compared with peer countries, including lower cancer death rates and greater control of blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Americans who reach age 75 can expect to live longer than people in the peer countries. With these exceptions, however, other high-income countries outrank the United States on most measures.

Why are Americans so unhealthy?

The panel's inquiry found multiple likely explanations for the U.S. health disadvantage:

* Health systems.  Unlike its peer countries, the United States has a relatively large uninsured population and more limited access to primary care. Americans are more likely to find their health care inaccessible or unaffordable and to report lapses in the quality and safety of care outside of hospitals.

* Health behaviors.  Although Americans are currently less likely to smoke and may drink alcohol less heavily than people in peer countries, they consume the most calories per person, have higher rates of drug abuse, are less likely to use seat belts, are involved in more traffic accidents that involve alcohol, and are more likely to use firearms in acts of violence.

* Social and economic conditions.  Although the income of Americans is higher on average than in other countries, the United States also has higher levels of poverty (especially child poverty) and income inequality and lower rates of social mobility. Other countries are outpacing the United States in the education of young people, which also affects health. And Americans benefit less from safety net programs that can buffer the negative health effects of poverty and other social disadvantages.

* Physical environments.  U.S. communities and the built environment are more likely than those in peer countries to be designed around automobiles, and this may discourage physical activity and contribute to obesity.

The tragedy is not that the United States is losing a contest with other countries, but that Americans are dying and suffering from illness and injury at rates that are demonstrably unnecessary. Superior health outcomes in other nations show that Americans can also enjoy better health.

"U.S. Health in International Perspective: Shorter Lives, Poorer Health" - Full 405 page report can be downloaded for free at this link:


By Don McCanne, M.D.

The United States is sick, literally and figuratively. We have the most expensive health care system, yet the worst health outcomes of the wealthier nations. The failures are not only with our health system but with much broader sociopolitical institutions.

In response to these glaring deficiencies, this NRC/IOM report places an emphasis on further research to better define the problem and identify interventions that would help. Research is fine, but we do not need to wait any longer when so many of the deficiencies our already in our face.

The brief paragraph above on health systems confirms the pressing need for an effective universal insurance system, along with an expansion of our primary care infrastructure. Enacting the PNHP single payer model would finally set us in the right direction toward a high-performance health care system.

The social and economic conditions, physical environments, and health behaviors demonstrate a crying need for much more effective sociopolitical public policies. Not only do we need a reinforcement of our public health system, we also need greater public action in education, community planning, and especially responsible government policies to correct the gut-wrenching social and economic injustices that permeate our society.

From the opponents of reform we continue to hear that we have the greatest health care system in the world and that we have the very best health outcomes. Download this highly credible report so that you will have it readily available to expose these liars for what they are. Also use it to educate politicians on the broad spectrum of urgent public policies that we so desperately need.

And while we're at it, we need to fire the politicians who are promulgating these cruel lies.