What Changes In Survival Rates Tell Us About US Health Care

By Peter A. Muennig and Sherry A. Glied
Health Affairs
October 7, 2010

Many advocates of US health reform point to the nation’s relatively low life-expectancy rankings as evidence that the health care system is performing poorly. Others say that poor US health outcomes are largely due not to health care but to high rates of smoking, obesity, traffic fatalities, and homicides. We used cross-national data on the fifteen-year survival of men and women over three decades to examine the validity of these arguments. We found that the risk profiles of Americans generally improved relative to those for citizens of many other nations, but Americans’ relative fifteen-year survival has nevertheless been declining. For example, by 2005, fifteen-year survival rates for forty-five-year-old US white women were lower than in twelve comparison countries with populations of at least seven million and per capita gross domestic product (GDP) of at least 60 percent of US per capita GDP in 1975. The findings undercut critics who might argue that the US health care system is not in need of major changes.

We speculate that the nature of our health care system — specifically, its reliance on unregulated fee-for-service and specialty care — may explain both the increased spending and the relative deterioration in survival that we observed. If so, meaningful reform may not only save money over the long term, it may also save lives.



By Don McCanne, MD

This study provides credible evidence that lower life expectancy in the United States, when compared to twelve other nations, is not due to smoking, obesity, traffic accidents nor homicides. Thus this study can be used to refute those who contend that we have the greatest health care system on earth, but it is the bad habits of those unworthy of health care that result in our lower life-expectancy ratings.

The authors speculate, “It is possible that rising US health spending is itself responsible for the observed relative decline in survival.” Specifically they suggest that “reliance on unregulated fee-for-service and specialty care may explain both the increased spending and the relative deterioration in survival.” They seem to dismiss the lack of health insurance as not having been found to have “substantial impacts,” though there is “uncertainty on this point.”

This opinion meshes well with a prevalent view expounded during the reform process that our costs are high because of an excess of health services that often impair outcomes. With almost no substantial evidence, the Dartmouth variations often were blamed for impaired outcomes, while largely ignoring a plethora of data that show that insufficient care, especially related to being uninsured or under-insured, greatly impairs outcomes.

One of the authors of this study, Sherry Glied, is taking this spending-causes-decline-in-survival theory with her to the Department of Health and Human Services where she is assistant secretary for planning and evaluation. These “neo-theorists” preach that we can improve quality and decrease spending through economic tools such as accountable care organizations and bundling of services. Come on.

It’s time to bring in the old school European-style theorists who have already shown that universal social insurance programs with well established primary care infrastructures do control costs and improve outcomes. Many Europeans engage in the same bad habits as found here in the United States, yet none of them are unworthy of health care.

This article is reposted with permission from pnhp.org.