5 things that make U.S. health care great

Anyone from outer space reading the news and watching TV would think that the U.S. has some of the worst health care possible. The negativity appears to be pervasive. Controversy over this, outrage over that. Whether it’s inadequate health outcomes, policy debate, or scandals with patient care, the stories and discussion abound.

As someone who grew up and went to medical school overseas and then came to the U.S. for medical residency (along with many others), I find some of this baffling. Let’s start first by agreeing that, yes, the U.S. health care system has big problems. But then, what health care system doesn’t? I’ve seen first-hand the systems in many countries, including the United Kingdom, Australia, and India, and am yet to find one which is perfect. The U.S. health care system compared with other Western nations probably struggles most with inequity and access. Yet at the same time, U.S. hospitals are undoubtedly some of the most advanced in the world. To balance out all the negative that we hear about, I’d like to point out 5 things that make U.S. health care — and particularly hospitals — great:

1. Rapid access to what you need. When you are in hospital, whatever you need is easily accessible and you are more likely to get a rapid diagnosis than in most other countries. Whether it’s a scan, specialist opinion, or other invasive treatment, U.S. hospitals will get what you need quickly, often within hours.

2. Patient choice and empowerment. Being patient-centered is more than just a buzzword. It’s the reality all across the nations’ hospitals. Patients are empowered to ask questions, seek second opinions, and if needed, complain, to an entity that will listen to them. This is not the case in many nationalized systems that adopt a more paternalistic approach. Along the same lines, we take it as a given that we have choice as to what hospital we go to and which doctor sees us.

3. Comfortable environment. Hospitals are more comfortable and accommodating than almost anywhere else in the world. It’s not uncommon in other developed countries to have a dozen or so patients in a single large room. Some industrialized countries still struggle with separating male and female patients into different rooms, a basic matter of dignity denied. While we still want to make hospitals even better, for instance with less noise and more palatable food, let’s not forget how far ahead we are too.

4. Statistics. A lot of the endemic chronic diseases in society are ironically a consequence of the wealth of the country, such as overeating and lack of exercise (everyone has a car, so why walk?). A case perhaps of your biggest strength also being your biggest weakness. Casting aside the bad statistics, which can certainly improve, did you know that the U.S. has some of the best statistics in the world for surviving a heart attack, stroke, and cancer? According to one study in Lancet from 2007, American women have a 63% chance of surviving at least 5 years after a cancer diagnosis compared to 56% for European women. For American men, it’s 66% compared to 47% for European men.

5. Research, innovation and entrepreneurship. American university-affiliated hospitals lead the world in research and development. From life-saving medications developed by U.S. companies to procedures such as heart stents, many of the world’s newest drugs and technologies are developed right here, with millions benefiting from them. Talking a little about physician entrepreneurship, many people see this as a double-edged sword. If it leads to inappropriate prescribing, it is of course a bad thing. But when it leads to innovation and cutting edge new technologies and treatments, what’s wrong with physician entrepreneurs? This drive and motivation is lacking in many Western countries with more centralized systems.

Taking things for granted is part of human nature. Does U.S. health care have major problems to fix? Absolutely. The cost of the system is unsustainable in the long term and we have to improve access for everyone. But we start from a good position. Looking at crude health care statistics such as countries’ ranking can sometimes be misleading and skew certain positive and negatives.

I’d like to leave you with one thought that I would challenge anyone who has been to hospitals in other parts of the world to ponder over, and particularly relevant when one of the biggest complaints about U.S. health care is about inequality: A homeless American entering the doors of a hospital with an acute medical issue — be it sepsis, a myocardial infarction, or a stroke — will get better care than a rich person almost anywhere else in the world.

Anyone disagree?

Suneel Dhand is an internal medicine physician and author of Thomas Jefferson: Lessons from a Secret Buddha and High Percentage Wellness Steps: Natural, Proven, Everyday Steps to Improve Your Health & Well-being.  He blogs at his self-titled site, Suneel Dhand.

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