Does the U.S. Have the Best Medical System?

I interviewed the top finance official at a large Southern California hospital a few weeks ago. She said she was skeptical of the Affordable Care Act. “We need to keep in mind,” she said, “that we do already have the best medical system in the world.”

Is this true, I wondered?

As a journalist, I’m skeptical of just about everything. I decided to do a little fact checking.

There isn’t a precise way to define the “best medical system.” The term could refer to how broadly care is available, for example, such as in countries that guarantee health care to all citizens. Or it might refer to the technology and highly trained and skilled practitioners available in the nation.  And it could refer to other qualities of health care altogether.

But there are metrics used to understand health outcomes in the U.S. in comparison to other countries.

According to the Social Progress Index, which compiles world statistics and ranks countries accordingly, the United States ranks 24th in nutrition and basic medical care. Iceland, Finland and Norway rank highest.

In the category of health and wellness, the U.S. comes in at 70th place.

According to The World Bank, life expectancy in the U.S. was 79 years in 2011, the latest year data is available. That’s lower than 32 other countries, including Singapore, Ireland and Slovenia. It’s the same as Bermuda, Chile and Cuba.

You could also look at maternal mortality, which is the number of women who die during pregnancy and childbirth, per 100,000 live births. The U.S. rate in 2010, the latest year data is available, was 21, the same as Iran and Hungary.

The rate of maternal deaths in the U.S. was far higher than in dozens of other countries, many of them European. Estonia, for example, had a maternal mortality rate of just 2. In Greece and Singapore, the rate was 3.

Another indicator is the mortality rate among children under 5. In 2012, 7 out of every 1,000 newborn babies in the U.S. were expected to die before reaching age 5. In Luxemborg and Iceland, just 2 were. Dozens of other countries also had lower rates than the U.S.

Despite this, the U.S. spends more on health care per capita than most other countries. Public and private health-care spending averaged $8,608 per person in 2011, behind only Switzerland, Norway and Luxembourg.

Will the new health-care law, known as Obamacare, help improve the U.S. medical system? And will that improvement in turn increase longevity and quality of life in the U.S.?

Although we’re starting to get a few indications of Obamcare’s successes and failures, it will take time to assess the full impact of the law.

“The jury’s out,” the hospital executive said. “I don’t think anybody can give that an honest answer for a couple of years.”

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