U.S. healthcare: Worst in the world -- except for the rest?

June 11, 2009
Greg Freiherr

It’s funny how we carry things with us from childhood. Growing up in my home in Wisconsin, it was common to hear my father say that the U.S. had the worst political system in the world … except for those in every other nation. We can say much the same today for our healthcare system. We have more advanced technology in a broader installed base than any nation in the world. But we’re nowhere near where we could -- or should -- be.

It's funny how we carry things with us from childhood. Growing up in my home in Wisconsin, it was common to hear my father say that the U.S. had the worst political system in the world … except for those in every other nation. We can say much the same today for our healthcare system. We have more advanced technology in a broader installed base than any nation in the world. But we're nowhere near where we could -- or should -- be.

Affordability is the problem. The can-do attitude that made the U.S. great puts achievement ahead of everything else, including cost. But in healthcare, cost is an issue, and it's getting bigger.

I can remember no time when the word "bankruptcy" has been spoken so often, even though it should have been. Financial collapse due to illness and injury led a U.S. family to file for bankruptcy every 90 seconds in 2007, according to researchers at Cambridge Hospital/Harvard Medical School, Harvard Law School, and Ohio University. Medical problems were the reason underlying more than 60% of all bankruptcies that year in the U.S., the researchers noted. These bankruptcies, they found, happened when income was lost due to illness, or family finances were overwhelmed by the magnitude of medical debts.

The findings argue for an overhaul of the way we insure ourselves against health problems, as medical problems can trigger loss of coverage when it's most needed. But they also reflect the embattled issue of health costs itself.

Over the last decade, the imaging industry has pulled away from building bigger and faster machines for the sake of size and speed. Clinical need has taken point guard position in the engineering process. Efforts by individual companies to develop value-oriented technologies that hold down the cost yet improve the quality of care, are laudable. But without fundamental changes in the practice of medicine that leverage such technologies, the benefits that might come from these efforts will not.

My father had the right idea. We can consider our government, and by extension our healthcare system, as the best in the world, but we must not be complacent. We have to look for ways to make them better -- and then do something about what we find. A system that heals patients but devastates them financially needs to heal itself.