Health Care Costs Around the World: How the U.S. Compares


health care costsThis post originally appeared on Vitals.

We’ve all heard that the U.S. spends a great deal on health care. It only takes a glance at the statistics comparing costs for health care in America to other countries to realize the madness in the numbers.

The US spends 2.5 times the international average on health care costs, yet our outcomes are no better than in other countries. Much of the cost is driven by the high cost of emerging new procedures, the cost of prescription drugs and high number of procedures and routine care being performed.

Consider the costs on everything from common procedures to prescription drugs for countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). A report released by the International Federation of Health Plans revealed that a colonoscopy in the U.S. averaged $1,185. The same procedure in Argentina costs $413. In Switzerland, it runs about $655.

In fact, colonoscopies provided a compelling case study in a June 2013 New York Times article “The $2.7 Trillion Medical Bill.” Using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the article stated that 10 million people get the procedure each year, adding up to more than $10 billion in annual costs.

With that many being scheduled, one could certainly call it routine, yet the process has become more complicated over the past couple of decades. Once performed out of the doctor’s office, today the procedure is treated like a “quasi operation” with patients reporting to surgery centers – and being billed according.

More damming is the claim that colonoscopies are prescribed and performed more frequently than medical guidelines recommend and are given preference over less invasive tests that screen for colon cancer. Those tests are not only routinely performed in other countries, they’ve also been proven to be just as effective by the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force.

“We’ve defaulted to by far the most expensive option, without much if any data to support it,” said Dr. H. Gilbert Welch, a professor of medicine at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice in the Times article.

  • Andrew

    What are the other options besides a colonoscopy?

  • Frankie

    What is largely missing from this discussion is the issue of litigation which targets practitioners in this country. Contrary the statement in this article, doctors order tests that may not be medically necessary in order to avoid missing a diagnosis and being sued as a missed diagnosis. It is underlying, pervasive fear that plagues the healthcare system and it is unique to America. Unless we address this issue, we won’t be able to completely reduce health care spending in this country.

    This article also does not address the long wait times for surgeries and procedures that patients must endure in other countries. As a culture, Americans are used to faster service, not just in healthcare, but at the supermarket, bank and many other daily activities. In a society where healthcare is viewed as a right, it will be difficult to convince people to endure longer wait times for their tests and procedures.

    • tim

      Whine, Whine, I have been to other countries and long lines are not a problem as even countries like china have special hosiptals that if you pay a little more you time is even less than in the USA. Also in some cases a complete physical can only take 1 hour in these special hospitals. Also if the doctors here were good then there would be no mistakes but they get lazy and thus the insurance problem many are to old and need to be put out to pasture.

  • JoePal

    A major factor that gets overlooked, conveniently, is the high cost of litigation in the USA as compared to the rest of the world. It should come as no surprise that average patient evaluation for seemingly benign complaints gets a high level work up on the off chance that something gets missed. Every patient is a potential lawsuit waiting to happen. What is the incentive for a physician to cut costs if there is a chance that they are missing something on a patient? So the extra CT scan gets ordered. The extra colonoscopy gets recommended. Lawyers are living good lives waiting for a missed diagnosis. And what’s the cost for a lawsuit? Nothing. Costs absolutely nothing to bring a lawsuit against a physician. Other countries have the same exact technology we have. Other countries have the same exact routine care we offer. Other countries do not have the same threat of lawsuits that we have. It’s simple math really. But since lawyers make the laws, that will never change. And that will continue to increase the cost of healthcare. And it is driving good physicians and potential physicians out of the profession in droves.