When compared to other developed countries, the U.S. ranks near the bottom on most standard measures of health. Many people assume that this is because the U.S. is more ethnically heterogeneous than the nations at the top of the rankings, such as Japan, Switzerland, and Iceland. But while it is true that within the U.S. there are enormous disparities by race and ethnic group, even when comparisons are limited to white Americans our performance is “dismal” observes Dr. Steven Schroeder in a lecture published in the New England Journal of Medicine yesterday.
Why? It’s not the lack of universal access to healthcare" says Schroeder, though that’s important. And it’s not just that we don’t exercise enough and eat too much—though that is a major cause. But there is one factor undermining the nation’s health that we just don’t like to talk about in polite society: Class. When it comes to health, class matters.
Schroeder, who is the Distinguished Professor of Health and Health Care at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) underlines how poorly even white Americans stack up when compared to the citizens of other countries by pointing to maternal mortality as one measure of health. When you look at “all races” you find that in the U.S. 9.9 out of 100,000 women die during childbirth. Focus solely on white women, and the number is still high—7.2 deaths out of 100,000 –especially when compared to Switzerland where only 1.4 women out of 100,000 die while giving birth.
Statistics on infant mortality reveal the same pattern: among “all races” 6.8 American children who were born alive die during infancy; limit the analysis to “whites only” and 5.7 infants die—compared to just 2.7 out of 1,000 in Iceland. .) When researchers compare maternal mortality and infant mortality in white America to rates of death in the 29 other OECD countries, white America ranks close to the bottom third in both categories.
Turn to life expectancy, and you find that white women in the U.S. can expect to live 80.5 years, only slightly longer than American women of all races (who average 80.1 years). Both groups lag far behind Japanese women (who, on average, clock 85.3 years). The gap between “all American men” (who live an average of 74.8 years) and white men in the U.S. (75.3 years) is wider—but not as wide as the gap between white men in the U.S. and men in Iceland (who live an average of 79.7 years).
“How can this be?” asks Schroeder. After all, as everyone knows, the U.S. spends far more on health care than any other nation in the world.
The answer is a stunner: the path “to better health does not generally depend on better health care,” says Schroeder. “Health is influenced by factors in five domains — genetics, social circumstances, environmental exposures, behavioral patterns, and health care. When it comes to reducing early deaths, medical care has a relatively minor role. Even if the entire U.S. population had access to excellent medical care — which it does not — only a small fraction of premature deaths could be prevented.” [my emphasis]