The United States spends more on healthcare than any other nation in the world. It also has access to skills, knowledge, and technologies which are well beyond the reach of many other nations. However, in spite of this significant potential, the US healthcare system has earned a reputation around the world for being unusually cold and cruel, with care routinely being denied to patients on financial grounds.
Life expectancy in the United States fell for the second year in a row during 2017, bucking the trend amongst most of the rest of the developed world, who have seen continuous rises in life expectancy for most of the last century. Unfortunately, when compared relative to other developed countries, this decline from the United States is not unprecedented. In fact, the issue of US healthcare declining relative to other developed nations is not news and has been building for a number of decades.
When the 1960s began, Americans enjoyed the highest life expectancy in the world, an impressive 2.4 years more than the average for other nations in the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development). It was during the 1980s that the downward trend began, culminating in 1998 when life expectancy in the US dropped below the OECD average for the first time.
Despite the fact that the United States can easily afford to train medical staff to a very high standard, with the best medical assistant education programs in the world, its healthcare system continues to lag behind.
An investigation conducted by the National Research Council (NRC) in 2013 sought to establish the causes of, and solutions to, the US health disadvantage compared with other OECD nations. The panel found that Americans were suffering from poorer health and lower standards of care than similarly developed nations. Among the areas where the US was faring much worse than other nations were birth outcomes, adolescent pregnancies, HIV/AIDS, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
The investigation also determined that there was a wide range of complex factors which contributed to the overall state of the US healthcare system and the outcomes it was able to deliver. Americans were found to be more likely to indulge in risky behaviors, including drug abuse, firearm misuse, and excessive caloric intake. Perhaps the most significant difference between the US and other nations was, and still is, the lack of universal healthcare or insurance.
The United States was also notable in the research for the unusually high rate of drug-related deaths – a problem which has grown worse since. The opioid epidemic gripping the United States is still having a noticeable impact on the overall statistics. Communities are being ravaged at a local level and society at large is being affected.
The reasons for the United States poor standing regarding healthcare amongst OECD nations are numerous and complex, but the lack of a centralized, universal healthcare system is definitely a contributing factor. Weakening educational performance, increasing social divides, and the stagnation of wages for the middle classes, are also key contributing factors.
US healthcare seems to be in crisis, but it is a crisis that has persisted for so long now that many regard it as a normal state of affairs. This is perhaps why it has proven so difficult to build the necessary cross-party support to instigate serious change.