A study of why the United States spends so much more on health care than in other high-income countries concludes that higher prices — particularly for doctors and pharmaceuticals — and higher administration expenses are predominantly to blame. U.S. policy must focus on reducing these costs in order to close its spending gap with other countries.
Health care spending in the United States greatly exceeds that in other wealthy countries, but the U.S. does not achieve better health outcomes. Policymakers commonly attribute this spending disparity to overuse of medical services and underinvestment in social services in the U.S. However, there has been relatively little data analysis performed to confirm that assumption. Writing in JAMA, researchers led by former Commonwealth Fund Harkness Fellow Irene Papanicolas and mentor Ashish Jha, M.D., report findings from their study comparing the U.S. with 10 other high-income countries to better understand why health care spending in the U.S. is so much greater.
- The U.S. continues to spend more on health care. In 2016, the U.S. spent 17.8 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on health care, while the average spending level among all high-income countries was 11.5 percent of GDP.
- The U.S. has lower rates of insurance coverage. While health coverage in the U.S. has risen to 90 percent since enactment of the Affordable Care Act, every other high-income country has achieved coverage for at least 99 percent of its population.
- The U.S. has mixed levels of population health. While Americans smoke less than people in other wealthy countries do, they have higher rates of obesity and infant mortality. Life expectancy in the U.S. is 78.8 years, nearly three years less than the average life expectancy in high-income countries.
- Except for diagnostic tests, the U.S. uses health care services at rates similar to those of other countries. Numbers of hospital visits and surgeries performed in the U.S. are similar to those in other countries. However, the U.S. performs 118 MRI scans per 1,000 people, compared to an average of 82 MRIs per 1,000 people among all high-income countries. The U.S. also performs a higher rate of CT scans: 245 per 1,000 people, compared to 151 per 1,000 people among all high-income countries.
- The U.S. pays more for . . .
- Doctors. The average salary for a general practitioner in the U.S. is $218,173, nearly double the average salary across all high-income countries. Specialists and nurses in the U.S. also earn significantly more than elsewhere.
- Pharmaceuticals. The U.S. spends $1,443 per person on pharmaceuticals, compared to the average of $749.
- Health care administration. The U.S. spends 8 percent of total national health expenditures on activities related to planning, regulating, and managing health systems and services, compared to an average 3 percent spent among all high-income countries.
Prices of labor and goods, including pharmaceuticals, and administrative costs appeared to be the major drivers of the difference in overall cost between the United States and other high-income countries.
The Big Picture
The study demonstrates that overall health system performance in the United States does not compare well with that in other wealthy nations, particularly given high U.S. spending — a finding consistent with the Commonwealth Fund’s most recent health system rankings. The health care spending gap with other countries appears to be driven by the high prices the U.S. pays for health care services — particularly doctors, pharmaceuticals, and administration. Compared to its peers, the U.S. has similar levels of spending for social services (including both public and private spending) and similar health care use, neither of which appear to be major causes of the spending gap. To reduce spending, the authors say that U.S. policymakers should focus on lowering prices and administrative costs, rather than just reducing use of health care services.
About the Study
The researchers analyzed data on health care spending, performance, and utilization made available by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the Commonwealth Fund from 11 high-income countries: Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the U.S.
The Bottom Line
The United States spends more on health care than other countries do because it pays more for health care services and administration.