Excerpt: 'The Healing of America,' by T.R. Reid

This was not a major disappointment, though, because that aching shoulder was really just a secondary impetus for my medical odyssey. It would be ridiculous, after all, to go all the way to the southern tip of India—not to mention London, Paris, Berlin, Tokyo, and so on—to get treatment for a sore shoulder that isn't, frankly, all that sore. The stiffness is tolerable most of the time. I have another arm to use for changing lightbulbs or getting glasses off the shelf. I don't have a golf swing anymore, but even when I could swing a club I was a rotten golfer.

So the shoulder was not my top priority. Rather, the primary goal of my travels was to find a solution to a much bigger medical problem. It's a national problem—a national scandal, really—that is undermining the physical and fiscal health of every American. With help from many scholars and the Kaiser Family Foundation, I traveled the world searching for a prescription to fix our country's seriously ailing health care system. As Nikki White's experience demonstrates, it's fundamentally a moral problem: We've created a health care system that leaves millions of our fellow citizens out in the cold. Beyond the issue of coverage, however, the United States also performs below other wealthy countries in matters of cost, quality, and choice.

Most Americans can remember when our politicians used to boast—and we used to believe—that the United States had "the finest health care system in the world." Today, any U.S. politician who dared to make that claim—it was last heard in a State of the Union address in 2002—would be hooted out of the room. Americans generally recognize now that our nation's health care system has become excessively expensive, ineffective, and unjust. Among the world's developed nations, the United States stands at or near the bottom in most important rankings of access to and quality of medical care. In 2000, when a Harvard Medical School professor working at the World Health Organization developed a complicated formula to rate the quality and fairness of national health care systems around the world, the richest nation on earth ranked thirty-seventh. That placed us just behind Dominica and Costa Rica, and just ahead of Slovenia and Cuba. France came in first.

The one area where the United States unquestionably leads the world is in spending. Even countries with considerably older populations than ours, with more need for medical attention, spend much less than we do. Japan has the oldest population in the world, and the Japanese go to the doctor more than anybody—about fourteen office visits per year, compared with five for the average American. And yet Japan spends about $3,000 per person on health care each year; we burn through $7,000 per person.

Health Expenditure as a percentage of GDP, 2005

USA 15.3

Switzerland 11.6

France 11.1

Germany 10.7

Canada 9.8

Sweden 9.1

UK 8.3

Japan 8.0

Mexico 6.4

Taiwan 6.2

Sources: OECD Health at a Glance, 2007; Government of Taiwan.

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