International Health Care Systems Medical Studies

Americans have the best cancer survival rates

On Friday I reported that the U.S. scored poorly on the Commonwealth Fund’s National Scorecard. Those in favor of universal health care are probably rejoicing. “The U.S. system is dysfunctional beyond repair and we need universal health care!

Yesterday, the Economist reported on an article in The Lancet Oncology journal which found that the U.S. has the best five year survival probabilities for breast and prostate cancer. Score one for those against universal health care. “The American free market is always the best!

How can this be? How can we reconcile these two results?

The Lancet Oncology article controls also for other covariates which are related to survival probabilities, but do not relate to the quality of health care. For instance, if Americans get cancer later in life than people from other countries this is taken into account since people who are older are more likely to die of almost all causes, including cancer. Further, if traffic mortalities or the homicide rate are higher in the U.S. than in other countries, this will likely decrease the probability a cancer patient survival for 5 years, but is unrelated to the quality of medical care. If Americans are more likely to be obese, this also will decrease their survival probabilities, but should not be an indictment against the health care system. For these reasons, the 5 year cancer survival probabilities are adjusted to take into account the age and death rates in the general population. After these effects are taken into account, the U.S. scores very well in terms of cancer survival.

Of course cancer survival is only one of a myriad of ways of measuring the quality of the American health care system. Further, the U.S. spends the most money on healthcare (in total and per capita) compared to any other country. While the U.S. may (or may not) be the best, it is certainly the most expensive.