For years, the United States has had the highest health care spending per capita of any country in the world. If all our citizens were bursting with health and living to be 95 years old, one could look at the spending side and say that it’s money well spent. But in fact our health is no better than the rest of the developed countries, and in many cases it’s worse. Our life expectancy is 42nd – not what you’d expect from the country that spends the most money trying to keep people healthy.
There have been numerous studies done to try to make sense of the disparity between the money we spend on health care and the actual health of our citizens. It’s true that medical services simply cost more in the US than they do elsewhere, for a variety of reasons. But could it be that we are also overusing our medical system? We live in a country where many people, when confronted with a health issue, think first of their doctor. They go in for an office visit and the doctor prescribes a medication that “solves” the problem. It may cause other problems in the process, but those can be fixed by tweaking the medication or adding another prescription. It seems that we have lost sight of our bodies ability to self-heal. And of the free non-medical things we can to do improve our health. (Things like a healthy diet and regular exercise come to mind – we all know that they improve our health, but we’re much better at taking medications than making lifestyle changes).
A perfect example of overuse of medical technology is evident in the way babies are born in the US. Ricki Lake has made a new documentary called The Business Of Being Born and it hits on many of the issues that surround the culture of birth in our country. The US has the second worst infant mortality rate in the developed world – only Latvia’s is higher. And for maternal deaths, the US has 1 for every 4800 women who give birth. Compared with Ireland’s maternal death rate of 1 in 47,600, we’re not doing so great. Our caesarean section rate has topped 30%, while the WHO estimates a c-section rate of 10% – 15% in developed countries. (Here in Colorado, it’s lower than the national average, with 24.6% of babies being born by c-section. While better than the national average, this number is still far higher than the WHO recommendations).
Ricki Lake’s movie does a great job of showing how childbirth in the US has become an extremely medical process. From the moment a woman is admitted and hooked up to an IV and an electronic fetal monitor, until the mother and baby are discharged, every aspect of the birth is controlled and “helped” by modern medicine. And yet our outcomes are no better (and in many cases worse) than countries where most births are attended by midwives and women are allowed to labor without intervention.
It’s time to re-evaluate our belief that more must be better when it comes to health care and medical treatment. It is often said that the true definition of insanity is continuing to do the same thing over and over while hoping for a different outcome. We have established ourselves firmly at the top of the world in terms of how much we spend on health care, and yet our outcomes are not even close to the top. It’s time to consider other options.