Global health: How the US measures up

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS
Published August 18, 2021

Key Takeaways

Skyrocketing costs of healthcare play a major role in the burgeoning national debt. These increased costs preclude the United States from investing in other important areas, including research, development, infrastructure, and education.

To add insult to injury, all this additional healthcare spending may be for naught. “Although the United States spends significantly more per person on healthcare than other industrialized nations, our health outcomes are no better—and often worse,” according to the Peter G. Peterson Foundation.

Let’s take a closer look at how US healthcare stacks up against other countries. Be warned that the results may be jarring. Of note, because healthcare outcomes are closely tied to fiscal matters, we’ll consider these issues in tandem.


The Commonwealth Fund routinely makes cross-national comparisons based on data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

According to the Commonwealth fund, these comparisons reflect US healthcare system spending, outcomes, risk factors and prevention, utilization, and quality, with regard to 10 other high-income OECD countries, including Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

The Commonwealth Fund draws several overall conclusions regarding the data:

  • The United States spends nearly twice as much on healthcare than the average OECD, yet has the lowest life expectancy and highest suicide rates.

  • Americans visit physicians less than citizens of other countries. This phenomenon could be related to a relative dearth of physicians in the United States.

  • Americans endure the highest chronic disease burden, with a rate of double the OECD mean.

  • Americans are more likely to use expensive technologies and undergo costly procedures, such as MRI and hip replacement, respectively, than citizens of other countries.

Finally, Americans excel in preventive measures. For instance, this country has among the highest rates of breast cancer screening in women aged between 50 and 69 years, as well as vaccinations in elderly people. Nevertheless, the United States incurs the highest number of hospitalizations due to preventable causes and the highest number of avoidable deaths.

The Kaiser Family Foundation also stresses the dire nature of comparisons between the United States and other nations.

“The United States has higher rates of overall mortality, deaths amenable to health care, and potential years of life lost,” according to the KFF. “Although the United States has lower mortality rates for breast and colorectal cancer, comparable countries continue to outperform the US on a number of measures, including hospital admissions for preventable diseases; rates of medical, medication and lab errors; and cost-related access barriers to healthcare. The United States has one of the highest death rates due to COVID-19 across the world, and its mortality rates will likely increase.”

The aforementioned Peter G. Peterson Foundation estimates that 30% of US healthcare spending is wasted on ineffective, overpriced, and unnecessary expenses. This metric translates to $765 billion, which is more than is spent on K-12 education. By 2025, healthcare spending is projected to crowd up to one-fifth of the US economy.

The Foundation also provides stark comparisons of how the United States sizes up to peer countries in terms of specific measures.

For instance, Japan has the highest rates of life expectancy, with the United States placed at the lower end of the spectrum, with rates just above Latvia.

As for infant mortality, although the United States has lower rates than Mexico at the low end of the spectrum, American infant mortality eclipses that of Iceland, which has the lowest rates in the world.

Italy has the lowest rates of unmanaged asthma and diabetes, with the United States again at the lower end of the spectrum barely doing better than Latvia and Mexico, respectively.

Compared with top-performer Poland, the United States has low rates of safety during pregnancy, although—somewhat intriguingly—Canada performs worse.


It’s eye-opening to compare exactly how much the United States outspends other countries with respect to healthcare. According to the aforementioned Commonwealth Fund, the United States spent 16.9% of its gross domestic product (GDP) on healthcare in 2018, which is almost twice as much as other OECD countries, including New Zealand and Australia. The country that spent the second most was Switzerland, which allotted 12.2% of the GDP.

“The share of the economy spent on healthcare has been steadily increasing since the 1980s for all countries because health spending growth has outpaced economic growth, in part because of advances in medical technologies, rising prices in the health sector, and increased demand for services,” according to the Commonwealth Fund.

Click here to read more about the state of US healthcare at

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