NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Misleading World Health Rankings

February 11, 2013

A report last month from the Institute of Medicine stated that the United States "is among the wealthiest nations in the world, but it is far from the healthiest."  To fix this, the authors called on America's leaders to consider "policies that countries with superior health status have found useful and that might be adapted for the United States." But the institute's report doesn't tell the whole story. Its key measurements aren't directly related to the quality of American health care. In truth, health care in the United States continues to be the envy of the world, says Sally C. Pipes, president and CEO at the Pacific Research Institute.

A major gauge of health is infant mortality. As the report's authors point out, the United States has the highest infant-mortality rate among high-income countries. However, this isn't a good indicator of the quality of the American health care system. The elevated U.S. rate is a function of both the technological advancement of American hospitals and discrepancies in how different countries define a live birth -- doctors in the United States are much more aggressive than foreign counterparts about trying to save premature babies. However, thanks to such technologies as emergency incubators equipped with sophisticated temperature-regulation technologies, the U.S. neonatal mortality rate has dropped to just 5 percent today from 95 percent in the 1960s.

The Institute of Medicine report also ignores one of America's chief health care assets: the country's superiority in medical innovation.

  • American researchers are responsible for a disproportionate number of breakthrough medicines and procedures.
  • Scientific research conducted in the United States contributed to at least 20 of the top 27 diagnostic and therapeutic advances of the last 40 years, according to a 2009 study for the Cato Institute.
  • The European Union and Switzerland contributed to just 14 of those breakthroughs.

This American strength may soon be diminished by ObamaCare.

  • The law saddles the pharmaceutical industry with $28 billion in new taxes through 2019.
  • As of January 1, medical device firms must pay a 2.3 percent tax on sales.
  • The tax is projected to extract as much as $29 billion over 10 years.
  • That is money that can't go to research and development.

Make no mistake -- there is plenty of work to be done in improving American health. But the statistics in the Institute of Medicine report don't reflect flaws in the U.S. health care system. Sustaining a superior level of medical innovation will do far more to improve Americans' health than adopting the health care policies from overseas.

Source: Sally C. Pipes, "Those Misleading World Health Rankings," Wall Street Journal, February 4, 2013.


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