U.S. Health Ranks Low in 2012

Overall, health news in 2012 brought some developments to be cheered, yet broadly the very poor U.S. health outcomes compared with other countries causes concern. Positive news comes from the Robert Wood Foundation’s documentation of declining childhood obesity rates in Philadelphia, New York City, Mississippi, and California. On the other hand, for the two health outcomes that are overall health indicators for nations – infant mortality rates and life expectancy – the U.S. did not even rank in the top 50 countries.

Despite the poor results on key indicators, the news about decreasing childhood obesity rates in Philadelphia and New York City may signal real improvements for children’s health. It may be that policy and prevention efforts caused these improvements. Over the last ten years, both cities implemented strong nutrition standards to improve food and beverages available in schools. They also introduced citywide efforts to improve healthy food and exercise. Even Mississippi, which has for decades been one of the states with the greatest number of people with obesity, has shown declines in child and teen obesity after extensive changes to school nutrition programs, including adding healthier foods to school lunches and providing more exercise time.

At the same time, a mystery remains. How can the U.S. spend over twice as much on healthcare as any other country and yet have such bad health outcomes? Total healthcare spending in the U.S. was $2.5 trillion, or $8,047 per person, 17.3% of the gross domestic product in 2009, up from 16.2% in 2008. Key health comparison indicators such as how long individuals live paled versus other nations. Worldwide, life expectancy in the US ranks 51st, infant mortality 51st, and maternal mortality 47th. These outcomes are shameful, given the money we spend on healthcare and the burden poor health places on society.

While spending on disease care does not seem to change poor health outcome statistics, health promotion campaigns such as the previously mentioned childhood obesity offer promise. Another example comers from a study in which researchers investigated the association between US smoking bans in workplaces, restaurants, and bars (passed from 1991 to 2008) and hospital admissions for smoking-related illnesses among Medicare beneficiaries age 65 and older. The study found hospital admissions for acute heart attacks fell about 20% three years after the smoking bans. In addition, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease fell 11 percent where workplace smoking bans were in place.

Click here to read more in a United Press International article by Alex Cukan.