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We're No. 26! US below average on most health measures

Americans are fatter and sicker than people in other comparable countries, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development finds
Americans are fatter and sicker than people in other comparable countries, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development finds.Jon Elswick / AP

Americans are below average on most measures of health — from obesity to infant mortality — when compared with other rich countries, and they're falling behind on lifespan, too, according to the latest survey.

The annual survey from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has been used for years to show that the U.S. spends far more than any other comparable country on health care, yet gets far less for its money — and the latest survey is no different. Americans are fatter, die younger and don’t get particularly good treatment for many diseases, with the exception of strokes and cancer.

It’s become a political debate, with Republican leaders such as House Speaker John Boehner trumpeting the best healthcare system in the world, while the Obama administration counters that the Affordable Care Act is aimed at starting to fix the mess.

The OECD survey compares the 34 member countries to one another on a range of measures, from lifespan and spending on drugs to infant mortality. It shows the health of Americans is worsening even as other countries improve things for their citizens.

“While life expectancy in the United States used to be one year above the OECD average in 1970, it is now more than one year below the average,” the report reads. The U.S. ranks at 26th in life expectancy out of 34 OECD countries. 

America falls below the OECD average, which is 80 years. The U.S. life expectancy for someone born in 2011 is just 78.7 years, right behind Denmark and just above Chile. A Swiss, Japanese or Italian newborn can expect to live to be nearly 83.

This fits in with another study published in July and focusing on the U.S. alone.

The report gives several possible reasons for why the United States might be falling behind, including "the highly fragmented nature of the U.S. health system, with relatively few resources devoted to public health and primary care, and a large share of the population uninsured."

Americans also eat more, take more legal and illegal drugs and are more likely to die in traffic accidents or be murdered, researchers found. 

“All OECD countries have universal (or quasi-universal) health coverage for a core set of health services and goods, except Mexico and the United States,” the report adds. 

The Affordable Care Act aims to change that — offering health insurance to the 15 percent of Americans who lack it either through new online health exchanges — which aren’t working too well right now – or an expansion of Medicaid, which is spotty.

Infant mortality is a major measure of a country’s health system and the U.S. ranks near the bottom here. The U.S. infant mortality rate is 6.1 deaths for every 1,000 live births, well below the OECD average of 4 deaths per 1,000. In Iceland, just 1.6 babies out of every 1,000 die and in Sweden, Japan, and Finland it’s around 2 per 100,000. 

The U.S. scores poorly in other measures of quality of health care, with the second-highest rates of adults hospitalized for asthma. Americans do well after a stroke, though. Only 4.3 percent of Americans die within a month of a stroke, compared to 10 percent in Britain, 6.7 percent in Germany and nearly 20 percent in Mexico.

The U.S., Canada, Australia and Iceland all do well against breast cancer compared to other OECD countries, with 90 percent of patients living five years or more.

Heart disease may be the most important measure of health care for rich countries — it’s the leading cause of death in most, including the United States. Again, the U.S. falls below the OECD average, with heart disease death rates closer to those in Poland and Mexico than in Japan, Korea or France.

Americans are by far the fattest, with an obesity rate of 36.5 percent in 2011, compared to 32.4 percent in Mexico, 25.4 percent in Canada, 4.3 percent in Switzerland and 2.1 percent in India.

And the U.S. is near the head of the pack in diabetes rates. Mexico’s rates soar — they’re at 15 percent of the population. But nearly 10 percent of Americans have diabetes, just about the same as in Poland and Chile, compared to less than 4 percent in Iceland and just over 4 percent in Sweden.

The report notes that Americans spend far more on health care than any other OECD country — $8,508 per capita in 2011, compared to $5,669 in Norway, the next highest-spending country, $4,522 in Canada, $3,405 in Britain and $3,213 in Japan. And we spend more as a country, too — 17.7 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2011, compared to 11.9 percent in the Netherlands, the next-highest country, and 9.3 percent on average for the OECD

Americans also spend more than average out-of-pocket for health care, just under 3 percent of total household budget, compared to 1.5 percent in Britain, France and the Netherlands.

There’s a hint of where the U.S .is spending more: Americans get far more pricey magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) exams than anyone else — nearly 103 for every 1,000 people, or more than 10 percent of the population got an MRI in 2011. This compares to 55 per average for the OECD as a whole, 49.8 per 1,000 in Canada and just 3.8 per 1,000 in New Zealand.

The figures are even bigger for CT exams, with nearly 274 per 1,000 Americans getting a CT scan. Only Greece does more: 320 per 1,000, compared to an OECD average of 131 per 1,000.

Americans spend more on drugs, too — $985 a year per person on average, compared to $701 in Canada, $531 in Switzerland and $483 on average.

But Americans don’t seem to have too many doctors The U.S. has fewer doctors per capita than most other countries, only 2.5 per 1,000 people, compared to 6.1 per 1,000 in Greece, 5 per 1,000 in Russia and about 3 or 4 per 1,000 in most European countries.