Every family wants the best care for an ill or injured family member. Most are grateful for the care and attention received. Yet, evidence in the National Scorecard on U.S. Health System Performance, 2008, shows that care typically falls far short of what is achievable. Quality of care is highly variable, and opportunities are routinely missed to prevent disease, disability, hospitalization, and mortality. Across 37 indicators of performance, the U.S. achieves an overall score of 65 out of a possible 100 when comparing national averages with benchmarks of best performance achieved internationally and within the United States.
Even more troubling, the U.S. health system is on the wrong track. Overall, performance has not improved since the first National Scorecard was issued in 2006. Of greatest concern, access to health care has significantly declined. As of 2007, more than 75 million adults—42 percent of all adults ages 19 to 64—were either uninsured during the year or underinsured, up from 35 percent in 2003. At the same time, the U.S. failed to keep pace with gains in health outcomes achieved by the leading countries. The U.S. now ranks last out of 19 countries on a measure of mortality amenable to medical care, falling from 15th as other countries raised the bar on performance. Up to 101,000 fewer people would die prematurely if the U.S. could achieve leading, benchmark country rates.
The exception to this overall trend occurred for quality metrics that have been the focus of national campaigns or public reporting. For example, a key patient safety measure—hospital standardized mortality ratios (HSMRs)—improved by 19 percent from 2000–2002 to 2004–2006. This sustained improvement followed widespread availability of risk-adjusted measures coupled with several high-profile local and national programs to improve hospital safety and reduce mortality. Hospitals are showing measurable improvement on basic treatment guidelines for which data are collected and reported nationally on federal Web sites. Rates of control of two common chronic conditions, diabetes and high blood pressure, have also improved significantly. These measures are publicly reported by health plans, and physician groups are increasingly rewarded for results in improving treatment of these conditions.
The U.S. spends twice per capita what other major industrialized countries spend on health care, and costs continue to rise faster than income. We are headed toward $1 of every $5 of national income going toward health care. We should expect a better return on this investment.
Performance on measures of health system efficiency remains especially low, with the U.S. scoring 53 out of 100 on measures gauging inappropriate, wasteful, or fragmented care; avoidable hospitalizations; variation in quality and costs; administrative costs; and use of information technology. Lowering insurance administrative costs alone could save up to $100 billion a year at the lowest country rates.
National leadership is urgently needed to yield greater value for the resources devoted to health care.
The National Scorecard includes 37 indicators in five dimensions of health system performance: healthy lives, quality, access, efficiency, and equity. U.S. average performance is compared with benchmarks drawn from the top 10 percent of U.S. states, regions, health plans, hospitals, or other providers or top-performing countries, with a maximum possible score of 100. If average U.S. performance came close to the top rates achieved at home or internationally, then average scores would approach 100.
In 2008, the U.S. as a whole scored only 65, compared with a score of 67 in 2006—well below the achievable benchmarks. Average scores on each of the five dimensions ranged from a low of 53 for efficiency to 72 for healthy lives.
On those indicators for which trend data exist, performance compared with benchmarks more often worsened than improved, primarily because of declines in national rates between the 2006 and 2008 Scorecards. Overall, national scores declined for 41 percent of indicators, while one-third (35%) improved, and the rest exhibited no change (or were not updated). Exhibit 2 lists indicators and summarizes scores and benchmark rates.
As observed in the first Scorecard, the bottom group of hospitals, health plans, or geographic regions is often well behind even average rates, with as much as a fivefold spread between top and bottom rates. On key indicators, a 50 percent improvement or more would be required to achieve benchmark levels.
The U.S. continues to perform far below what is achievable, with wide gaps between average and benchmark performance across dimensions. Despite some encouraging pockets of improvement, the country as a whole has failed to keep pace with levels of performance attained by leading nations, delivery systems, states, and regions. Following are major highlights from the Scorecard by performance dimension:
Healthy Lives: Average Score 72
Quality: Average Score 71
Access: Average Score 58
Efficiency: Average Score 53
Equity: Average Score 71
System Capacity to Innovate and Improve: Not Scored
The capacity to innovate and improve is fundamental to a high-performing health care system. It includes:
On all three aspects, the U.S. currently under-invests in the capacity of the health system to innovate and improve. U.S. payment systems undervalue primary care and fail to support providers' efforts to manage and coordinate care. Studies indicate that health care teams and well-organized work processes can achieve significant gains in quality and safety with more efficient use of resources. Yet, health professionals are rarely trained to work in teams, and larger organized delivery systems that employ multidisciplinary health professionals are not the norm. There is little investment in spreading best practices, and incentives are rarely designed to reward or support improved quality and greater efficiency. In an era of rapid medical advances, national investment in research regarding clinical and cost-effectiveness—what works well for which patients and when—has failed to keep pace to inform health care decision-making.
Potential for Improvement
Overall, the National Scorecard on U.S. Health System Performance, 2008, finds that the U.S. is losing ground in providing access to care and has uneven health care quality. The Scorecard also finds broad evidence of inefficient and inequitable care. Average U.S. performance would have to improve by more than 50 percent across multiple indicators to reach benchmark levels of performance.
Closing performance gaps would bring real benefits in terms of health, patient experiences, and savings. For example:
Studies further document the cost in lives and lost productivity from the nation's failure to provide secure health insurance to all. Based on areas within the U.S. that achieve superior outcomes at lower costs, it should be possible to close gaps in health care quality and access, and to reduce costs significantly.
Several implications for policy emerge from the Scorecard findings:
What Receives Attention Gets Improved
Notably, all of the quality indicators showing significant improvement have been targets of national and collaborative efforts to improve, informed by data with measurable benchmarks and indicators reached by consensus. Conversely, there was failure to improve in areas such as mental health care, primary care, hospital readmission rates, or adverse drug events for which focused efforts to assess and improve at the community or facility level are lacking. Further, the continued failure to adopt interoperable health information technology makes it difficult to generate the information necessary to document performance and monitor improvement efforts.
Better Primary Care and Care Coordination Hold Potential for Improved Outcomes at Lower Costs
Hospital readmission rates and rates of potentially preventable hospitalizations for ambulatory care-sensitive conditions remain high and variable across the country, as do total costs for the chronically ill. Studies indicate that it is possible to prevent hospitalization or rehospitalizations with better primary care, discharge planning, and follow-up care—an integrated, systems approach to care.
Multiple indicators highlight the fact that the U.S. has a weak primary care foundation. Investing in primary care with enhanced capacity to provide patients with round-the-clock access, manage chronic conditions, and coordinate care will be key steps in moving to more organized care systems.
However, current payment incentives for hospitals, physicians, and nursing homes do not support coordination of care or efficient use of expensive, specialized care. information also fails to flow with patients across sites of care due to lack of health information technology and information exchange systems. These inefficiencies require innovative payment policies as well as care delivery approaches to improve outcomes for patients and use resources more efficiently.
The 2008 National Scorecard documents the human and economic costs of failing to address the problems in our health system. Recent analysis suggests it could be possible to insure everyone and achieve significant savings with improved value over the next decade. Health care expenditures are projected to double to $4 trillion, or 20 percent of national income, over the next decade, and millions more U.S. residents are on a path to becoming uninsured or underinsured, absent new policies. We need to change directions, starting with the recognition that access to care, health care quality, and efficiency are interrelated.
Aiming higher and moving on a more positive path will require strategies targeting the multiple sources of poor health system performance. These strategies include:
Rising costs put families, businesses, and public budgets under stress, pulling down living standards for middle- as well as low-income families. New national policies that take a coherent, whole-system, population view are essential for the nation's future health and economic security.