August 2, 2009

Comparative Feelings About Healthcare

Justin Katz

Before yesterday's RISC meeting, somebody of my general political philosophy mentioned that she'd just returned from Canada, and her associates in that country were well satisfied with their healthcare. Such testimonies are worth considering, of course, but anybody who feels anything other than utter bewilderment at the Mac v. PC spats, in either direction, should understand their subjective nature. If the techie analogy doesn't work for you, just about any product type will do — cars, game systems, shampoos, comic book publishers, sports franchises, or, directly to the point, nations. We human beings tend toward chauvinism, broadly speaking, on matters large and small.

The United States of America has long been the global superpower. The grand economy. The military giant. The entertainment king. The innovator. Being more a philosophical individualist than a nationalist, I see that mainly in functional terms; our system of society has gotten something important right (amidst all of the many things that our culture has undeniably gotten wrong). But as with other components of identity, folks the world 'round evince a natural affinity for their own countries and a desire to defend them on qualitative grounds.

One gets the impression, reading around, that it's a point of pride for foreign nationals that their governments "are able" to provide universal healthcare, and ours is not. In the presence of an American guest, therefore, it would be natural for them to, well, downplay the bad and emphasize the good. Pervasive horror-story propaganda about non-government healthcare systems likely stoke that subtle nationalism.

From amidst my vast internal archive of high-end cultural memories, an example emerges: During an episode of MTV's Real World, London, which aired in 1994, Sharon became ill and had to be whisked to the hospital, where the doctors were able to remedy her potentially fatal (if usually benign) ailment. Neil, who was pursuing a career as a rock star during his hiatus from Ph.D. studies in experimental psychology, berated his American flatmates (too clueless to have a response) that their friend would absolutely have died had she been uninsured in their home country.

His passionate vitriol was patently odd. In retrospect, though, it was understandable. Sure, his country has long been waning — and in a manner bound up with cultural insecurity and guilt — but at least his countrymen had the good hearts to save each others' lives.

It would be interesting to get a reaction from Neil, or from my acquaintance's Canadian friends, to this list that's been making its way around the right-wing blogosphere:

  1. Americans have better survival rates than Europeans for common cancers.
  2. Americans have lower cancer mortality rates than Canadians.
  3. Americans have better access to treatment for chronic diseases than patients in other developed countries.
  4. Americans have better access to preventive cancer screening than Canadians.
  5. Lower income Americans are in better health than comparable Canadians.
  6. Americans spend less time waiting for care than patients in Canada and the U.K.
  7. People in countries with more government control of health care are highly dissatisfied and believe reform is needed.
  8. Americans are more satisfied with the care they receive than Canadians.
  9. Americans have much better access to important new technologies like medical imaging than patients in Canada or the U.K.
  10. Americans are responsible for the vast majority of all health care innovations.

Number 10 pops up in various contexts. For example, over the course of decades, other developed nations have been able to spend a lower percentage of their budgets on military forces, because they've fallen under the protective umbrella of the United States. Just so, the (somewhat) free-market system in the U.S. has kept incentives alive for continued medical innovations and technologies. The page from which I took the above list also has a table of ten critical medical innovations, and the prominence of our country is conspicuous.

In that regard, however much they may be inclined to extol the approach of their own nations to the provision of healthcare, our fellows across the border and across the sea should keep their fingers crossed that Americans aren't so persuaded as to emulate them.