Health Care’s ‘Upstream’ Conundrum

When it comes to the long-term health of the country, findings now show the big problem might not be health care at all—it might be everything else. Can researchers get politicians to pay attention?

From my article in January 2018 in Politico

At the heart of America’s vaunted health care system is a frustrating puzzle. The United States pays three times as much per citizen as the average of other wealthy nations—far more than even the second-highest spender, Switzerland, adding up to $3 trillion a year. Yet for all that enormous expenditure, we come in dead last among those nations in lifespan. And as the bills climb, our life expectancy is actually shrinking.

What’s going so wrong? If our national health care were a corporation, that return on investment would get its CEO immediately fired. Plenty of experts are ready to point fingers at various causes: our lack of universal health care, industrialized food system, PoliticoUpstreamsuburban lifestyles, and profit-driven tangle of insurers and drug companies and hospitals. Surely those play a role. And yet other countries face each of these, and other challenges as well, and still manage to spend less and enjoy better health overall.

Looming over the American conversation about public health is a growing suspicion that there’s a bigger reason for our uniquely poor showing, one that has been staring us in the face for years. It’s an explanation rooted in one simple statistic: While we pay more for health care than any other country in the world, when it comes to spending on social services—education, subsidized housing, food assistance and more—we rank in the bottom 10 among developed countries.

It’s easy to think of “health” as just another category of social-service spending. But a great deal of modern research suggests that it might be more accurate to think of it as the payoff of all the other services put together. Elizabeth Bradley, president of Vassar College and a former Yale researcher widely seen as the world’s foremost expert in the relationship between social services and health, has documented how the ratio of a country’s social-service spending to health care spending is highly correlated with health outcomes around the world. “The right question for our political agenda is, ‘What’s going to give us the most bang for the buck in health outcomes?'” says Bradley. “What our work has shown is that the answer is spending on social services.” Read more

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