For Americans, Getting Sick Has Its Price

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By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 4, 2005

Americans pay more when they get sick than people in other Western nations and get more confused, error-prone treatment, according to the largest survey to compare U.S. health care with other nations.

The survey of nearly 7,000 sick adults in the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Britain and Germany found Americans were the most likely to pay at least $1,000 in out-of-pocket expenses. More than half went without needed care because of cost and more than one-third endured mistakes and disorganized care when they did get treated.

Although patients in every nation sometimes run into obstacles to getting care and deficiencies when they do get treated, the United States stood out for having the highest error rates, most disorganized care and highest costs, the survey found.

"What's striking is that we are clearly a world leader in how much we spend on health care," said Cathy Schoen, senior vice president for the Commonwealth Fund, a private, nonpartisan, nonprofit foundation that commissioned the survey. "We should be expecting to be the best. Clearly, we should be doing better."

Other experts agreed, saying the results offer the most recent evidence that the quality of care in the United States is seriously eroding even as health care costs skyrocket.

"This provides confirming evidence for what more and more health policy thinkers have been saying, which is, 'The American health care system is quietly imploding, and it's about time we did something about it,' " said Lucian L. Leape of the Harvard School of Public Health.

The new survey, the eighth in an annual series of cross-national surveys conducted by Harris Interactive for the fund, is the largest to examine health care quality across several nations during the same period. The survey was aimed at evaluating care across varying types of health care systems, including the market-driven U.S. system and those that have more government controls and subsidies.

The survey, published in the journal Health Affairs, questioned 6,957 adults who had recently been hospitalized, had surgery or reported health problems between March and June of this year.

"These patients are the canary in the coal mine of any health care system," Schoen said.

Nearly a third of U.S. patients reported spending more than $1,000 in out-of-pocket expenses for their care, far outpacing all other nations. Canadians and Australians came next, with 14 percent of patients spending that much. The proportion reporting similarly high costs was far lower in the other countries.

Americans had the easiest access to specialists, but they experienced the most problems getting care after hours, and Americans and Canadians were the most likely to report problems seeing a doctor the same day they sought one.

Americans were also much more likely to report forgoing needed treatment because of cost, with about half saying they had decided not to fill a prescription, to see a doctor when they were sick or opted against getting recommended follow-up tests. About 38 percent of patients in New Zealand reported going without care; the numbers were 34 percent in Australia, 28 percent in Germany, 26 percent in Canada and 13 percent in Britain.

"If that's not a reason for moral outrage, I don't know what is," Leape said.

About one-third of U.S. patients reported problems with the coordination of their care, such as test results not being available when they arrived at a doctor's appointment or doctors ordering duplicate tests. In the other countries, 19 to 26 percent of patients reported similar problems.

Americans also reported the greatest number of medical errors. Thirty-four percent reported getting the wrong medication or dose, incorrect test results, a mistake in their treatment or care, or being notified late about abnormal test results. Only 30 percent of Canadian patients, 27 percent of Australian patients, 25 percent of New Zealanders, 23 percent of Germans and 22 percent of Britons reported errors.

"The findings show that we have a lot to learn from our colleagues" in other countries, said Carolyn Clancy of the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality during a briefing at which the results were released. She said the federal government has launched a number of initiatives to find ways to improve care, particularly for the increasing number of Americans with chronic illness.

"The findings here reinforce how difficult it is coordinating care. . . . That's the next frontier," Clancy said.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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