THE BLOG

Medical Attention Required: Sequestration and the 'U.S. Health Disadvantage'

02/25/2013 04:56 pm ET | Updated Apr 27, 2013

Pop quiz:

Which group is healthier?
1) Rich Americans or Rich Europeans?
2) Americans living in poverty or Europeans living in poverty?
3) Young Americans or young Europeans?

Many people know that the U.S. spends far more per person on health care than any other nation on the planet. But a growing body of research now shows that Americans -- rich or poor, minority or not -- suffer from a widening "health disadvantage" when compared to citizens of other high-income countries. So the answer to the pop quiz? According to the Institute of Medicine (IOM), the answer to all questions is same: Americans are less healthy, hands down.

In January, the IOM and the National Research Council released "U.S. in International Context: Shorter Lives, Poorer Health." An expert panel, commissioned by the National Institutes of Health, investigated whether Americans of all ages were affected by a growing health gap previously observed between older Americans and their foreign counterparts.

The panel examined several decades of data from the U.S. and 16 comparable high-income countries, most of which are European. What they found is, or should be, alarming, even for seasoned health experts. "We uncovered a strikingly consistent and pervasive pattern of higher mortality and inferior health in the United States, beginning at birth."

Simply put, as Americans -- young or old, rich, middle-class, or poor -- we tend to be sicker and die younger than our European counterparts.

We may take a turn for the worse if next week's 5 percent across-the-board cuts to public health and other nondefense discretionary programs go through (that is, of course, unless Congress is pressured before March 1 to avoid these "sequestration" cuts.

As a practicing physician, I wonder what the IOM report means for my fellow clinicians -- the people who have literally sworn to keep us healthy. Sequestration or not, how do health care systems respond, especially at a time when health care professionals are adjusting to a shifting landscape of structural reforms? Will the "U.S. health disadvantage" be a clarion call to realign the way we deliver health care? Or will this news drive clinicians to sound a retreat from the front lines at the precise time when we need them to work alongside patients and others to transform our sick care system into a prevention-oriented health care system?

I recently talked with one of the IOM panelists behind the report, Paula Braveman, M.D., MPH, professor of family and community medicine and director, Center on Social Disparities in Health at UCSF. I spoke with her on behalf of HealthBegins, a "think-and-do tank" committed to improving health care and the social and environmental conditions that make people sick. We discussed the report and what it means for America's clinicians.

Manchanda: What were your objectives for this report?

Braveman: This is the first report to compare the U.S. with other countries on a wide range of health indicators and across all ages. A couple of years ago, an IOM panel chaired by Eileen Crimmins and Samuel Preston produced a report titled "International Differences in Mortality at Older Ages." They documented a growing mortality gap between Americans age 50 or above and their counterparts in other affluent nations and considered several factors that might account that this gap. Our panel was appointed by the NIH to answer if that gap also affected Americans below age 50. This was an 18-month study. We relied on existing data, but did some new analyses of data from the U.S. and 16 nations of comparable economic status.

Manchanda: What did you find? What is the "U.S. health disadvantage"?

Braveman: We found a persistent gap in health across all ages up until age 75, across a vast majority of health indicators with few exceptions. That's the U.S. health disadvantage. A key aspect is that this disadvantage is not confined to Americans who are poor or belong to minority groups. Affluent and white Americans also experience this health disadvantage. It's a new and sobering recognition of how poorly the U.S. is doing in terms of health.

It was not within scope of this report to examine the reasons deeply. Our most fervent hope is that this will create public debate that will help more Americans understand this disadvantage and what we can do about it. We also hope that, if more Americans really understand the gravity of this disadvantage, perhaps the U.S. would be more open to consider approaches in other countries that have worked and how they can be modified for the U.S.

Manchanda: What's driving the health disadvantage? And what is the most promising opportunity to help decrease it?

Braveman: The health system alone doesn't account for the U.S. health disadvantage. Health care is probably a factor, but we did not think it is the big driver. From higher rates of injuries, accidents, and homicides to high rates of teen pregnancy and STIs and poor birth outcomes, we can infer that there are primarily social issues that need to be addressed. In the report summary, we stated,

No single factor can fully explain the U.S. health disadvantage. It likely has multiple causes and involves some combination of inadequate health care, unhealthy behaviors, adverse economic and social conditions, and environmental factors, as well as public policies and social values that shape those conditions.

[Note: In public health, these factors are known as the "social determinants of health."]

So I think our emphasis should be on prevention. If I were forced to choose just one area, to pick the most promising opportunity, it would be addressing poverty, especially child poverty and the adverse conditions in homes and communities that are tightly linked with poverty. Incidentally, we lead other nations in child poverty rates. That is not a distinction we can be proud of.

We know enough about the social determinants of health now to be able to trace out plausible pathways that can explain much of the U.S. health disadvantage. And with that in mind, we're really different from other countries in how we provide services that address the social determinants. From child care and preschool to mental health services and family leave, our social safety net is relatively weak compared with those of our peer countries. That, as well as child poverty, may account for part of the U.S. health disadvantage.

Manchanda: Your report found that the U.S. health disadvantage was not limited to poor Americans; rich Americans are also unhealthier than their counterparts in other nations. That may be news to some.

Braveman: That's right. One hypothesis that may explain this is that there is a certain level of anxiety for everyone associated with living in a society where the safety net is relatively weak. There is also research that suggests that the degree of economic inequality in a society is linked with poorer health outcomes. It's possible that our sense of rugged individualism in America contributes to a lack of solidarity and support for social services that can improve health outcomes. And it might contribute to other risk factors like a lack of gun control measures that could decrease injuries and homicides.

Manchanda: What do you believe the report means for health care systems and professionals?

Braveman: I think there are two lessons for clinicians and health care systems.

First, I think it's important to conceptualize and expand the ability of primary care services to link people to resources in the community that deal with prevention and the social determinants of health. We in health care need to do a better job of supporting efforts for prevention in other sectors -- like child care, education, housing, and urban planning -- that are the largest determinants of who gets sick in the first place. Doctors and other clinicians need to be part of that work and be involved in getting their clinics to do more to address social determinants of health. They need tools, examples and role models. That's what makes groups like HealthBegins so interesting.

Advocacy is also essential. Convincing policymakers and the public that health is bigger than health care is something that clinicians can do really well if they are convinced. When a physician speaks to the need for prevention, it's very powerful. For most clinicians, this will mean getting active at the local level, working with local groups to change policies. This doesn't mean physicians should drop their work just to do advocacy, but if they can occasionally show up at local events and support community prevention efforts, that'd go a long way. The same goes for health professions students. At a broader level, clinicians can join and insist that their professional organizations do everything possible to make decreasing the U.S. health disadvantage a priority.

It's not a realistic expectation for every clinician to lead that change, but many can join with other groups.

Manchanda: What are the biggest barriers facing clinicians who want to help address the "health disadvantage" at a local level?

Braveman: Well, the role of profit-making in health care puts pressure on physicians to focus on a very different set of priorities. We'll see if that changes any with the health care reforms underway, but I am not very optimistic. There's also such a shortage of primary care clinicians in many communities. That makes it hard. And finally, more and more physicians work in large organizations and may have less autonomy than before to make changes in their health care system that can support community prevention.

Manchanda: What can large health care organizations do?

Braveman: Kaiser Permanente does an admirable job as a large organization to address prevention. But they're under pressure to compete with for-profit entities. These entities have to be part of improving health in their communities, not just treating the patients in their buildings. It's up to health care professionals and policymakers to influence these entities.

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I thanked Dr. Braveman for being so generous with her time in discussing the IOM report and the state of health in the U.S. As a practicing physician, our conversation created an increased sense of urgency. We need coordinated action at multiple levels and across many sectors to tackle the US health disadvantage. As the IOM report states so well:

Without action to reverse current trends, the health of Americans will probably continue to fall behind that of people in other high-income countries. The tragedy is not that the U.S. is losing a contest with other countries, but that Americans are dying and suffering from illness and injury at rates that are demonstrably unnecessary.

But playing defense isn't sufficient. How will clinicians and health care systems work to eliminate the U.S. health disadvantage? To be sure, this question may be a lot to ask at a time of so much change in health care. But, as the 405 pages of statistics and analyses in the IOM report make clear, it's one that deserves an answer.

What do you think?? Share your thoughts in this online survey. It takes less than a minute. Then, ask any clinician you know to take the survey. In March, HealthBegins will share survey results with you and with health care professional associations and medical schools.

(Note: This article is adapted from a blog I recently posted on HealthAffairs.
Rishi Manchanda, M.D., MPH, The US Health Disadvantage and Clinicians. Health Affairs Blog, 2/22/13. Copyright ©2010 Health Affairs by Project HOPE -- The People-to-People Health Foundation, Inc.

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