The belief that the US healthcare system is better than other countries is highly debatable.
Although the US spends more on healthcare (in terms of share of the economy) than other countries and leads the way when it comes to preventative measures, the US has the lowest life expectancy among the 11 OECD countries.
It also struggles with high chronic disease and obesity rates.
Like all other countries, the US healthcare system has its advantages and disadvantages. But most people, both in the US and abroad, will probably dispute the belief that the US has a comparatively good healthcare system.
Below, we’ll go over some of the features of the US healthcare system (both the good and the not-so-good) and compare it to other countries, especially OECD countries.
From there, you can determine for yourself whether the US healthcare system is indeed better than other countries – or whether it leaves much to be desired.
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The US does not have free (or universal) healthcare. Any time an American needs healthcare, they need to pay for it.
Healthcare in the US is notoriously expensive. For example, if someone breaks their leg, they can expect to pay around $7,500.
If a person needs to stay in a hospital or other medical facility for 3 days, they might end up with a bill for $30,000.
The majority of Americans have health insurance, which protects them from owing enormous amounts of money to hospitals or doctors if they get hurt or sick.
To obtain health insurance, they’re required to make regular payments (usually monthly) to their health insurance company.
In exchange for the payments, the company agrees to partially or fully pay the person’s medical bills.
The Affordable Care Act (ACA), colloquially known as Obamacare, is an act that was signed into law in 2010 by President Barack Obama.
The goal of the act was to provide all Americans with affordable health insurance coverage.
The ACA also aimed to protect Americans from insurance company efforts to increase patient costs or limit care.
Since the act was signed into law, millions of Americans, especially those who were unemployed or were stuck with low-paying jobs, have benefited from the ACA.
That being said, the ACA hasn’t been without its fair share of controversy. Many Americans have objected to the higher insurance premiums and tax increases associated with Obamacare.
Some employees in the healthcare industry have voiced concerns about extra workloads and costs imposed on medical providers.
And there are some who argue that the quality of care has decreased since the ACA was passed.
Out of the 11 OECD countries, the US spends the most on healthcare.
In 2018, the US spent 16.9% of its GDP on healthcare. This is almost twice as much as other OECD countries.
In second place was Switzerland, with 12.2%.
This comparatively high healthcare spending rate partly has to do with the fact that the US has high chronic and obesity rates, much higher than other OECD countries.
However, since the 1980s, all countries have seen a steady increase in healthcare spending, largely due to rising health sector prices, advances in medical technology, and growing demand for health services.
With 40% of Americans considered obese, the US has the world’s highest obesity rate among OECD countries.
The second and third highest-ranking OECD countries when it comes to obesity rates are New Zealand and Australia, at 32.2% and 30.4%, respectively.
In last place is Switzerland, with an obesity rate of only 11.3%.
Because of the negative effects of obesity on people’s health, obesity contributes to the development of other conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, and a host of other cardiovascular diseases.
Thus, the US has high rates of these diseases as well.
Problems that contribute to obesity include unhealthy diets and living environments and a plethora of socioeconomic and behavioral factors.
Among all the OECD countries, the US has the shortest life expectancy, at 78.6 years, which is 2 years below the OECD average.
Compare this number to Switzerland, which has an average lifespan of 83.6 years.
This statistic becomes even more alarming when you consider the fact that the US spends the most on healthcare.
Couple that with the fact that the US life expectancy hides ethnic and racial disparities. Among Black Americans, the average life expectancy is 75.3 years, 3.5 years lower than non-Hispanic whites.
On the other hand, life expectancy for Hispanic Americans (81.8 years) is higher than whites and similar to life expectancy in Canada, New Zealand, and the Netherlands.
There’s also a nationwide epidemic of mental illness, which reflects the country’s shorter life expectancy.
In fact, the US has the highest suicide rate in the OECD, at 13.9 suicides per 100,000 people.
The UK’s suicide rate is almost half that, at 7.3 suicides, putting it at the bottom of the list of OECD countries.
The growing number of suicides is largely a result of the rise of significant mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety, especially among young Americans.
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15-to-24-year-old Americans.
Fortunately (and contrary to popular belief), the US suicide rate didn’t rise during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As a matter of fact, the rate dropped by 3%. Factors believed to have contributed to this drop include strengthened social and familial relationships (despite the mental health impact of the lockdown) and an array of social programs.
Even with their high healthcare spending, Americans visit the doctor much less often than their counterparts in most countries.
With an average of 4 visits per year, Americans see their doctor at about half the rate as do the Dutch and Germans.
But their rate is higher than in Sweden and similar to that in Switzerland, New Zealand, and Norway.
The lower number of visits may have to do with the fact that the US has fewer physicians than other OECD countries.
Norway, which has a total population of 5 million people, has nearly twice as many physicians as the US (330 million people).
Despite the country’s less-than-stellar numbers when it comes to healthcare, the US leads the way in preventative medicine.
For example, for women ages 50 to 69, the US has one of the highest breast cancer screening rates.
Furthermore, the US has the highest breast cancer survival rate (5% higher than the OECD average).
It should be noted, however, that this isn’t true for every type of cancer. The cervical cancer survival rate among American women is lower than in 10 of the OECD countries.
Nonetheless, the US boasts the second-highest rate of flu vaccinations among those who are 65 years or older.
In 2016, over two-thirds of adults ages 65 and above had received a flu vaccine. Only one country in the OECD, the UK, had a higher rate.
At the bottom of the list were Norway and Germany, where only one-third of older adults had the flu vaccine.