Health Check for Our Nation
In a report published last year the U.S. National Research Council (NRC) and the Institute of Medicine (IOM), two relatively conservative organizations, reviewed our Nation’s health from an international perspective.
We did not fare well. Over the past 40 years we have slipped from being one of the healthiest countries to ranking below that of 17 comparably developed countries. Among these countries we have the highest rate of infant mortality and second highest rate of AIDS and ischemic heart disease (blockage of the blood vessels that supply the heart). We also had higher rates of adverse birth outcomes, obesity in children and adults, adult diabetes, chronic lung disease, and sexually transmitted illnesses, and we lose more years of life to drugs prone to abuse. We also have a higher incidence of injuries from motor vehicle accidents and violence. In a study done in 2009 we ranked 28th among other nations in the expected longevity of persons over the age of 50.
In the past, in spite of efforts to develop a national public health system, and in spite of clear evidence that significant social class differences were a prominent factor in determining health, much of the blame for poor health was placed on the behavior of individuals. However, a study in 2006 comparing the health of American and English citizens found that, although both had a significant social health gradient (that is, the general health of the poorest was significantly worse than the general health of the richest), those Americans in the top social bracket fared worse than their English counterparts. This was in spite of the fact that those at the top of our socioeconomic ladder had easy access to the best health care our country had to offer and we, as a nation, paid a greater share (17.9 percent) of our gross domestic product (GDP) for medical care in 2011 than any other developed country. In contrast, the average spent on health care by European Union countries in 2010 was 9 percent of the GDP and no other country spent more than 11 percent of its GDP on health care.
The 2013 report by the NRC and IOM suggested that we needed to look more deeply into the socioeconomic factors and psycho-social stresses that surely affect our health and/or our resistance to disease (for example, low wages, poverty, incarceration, joblessness, divorce, single-parent homes, rising health care costs, and the increasing income inequality) that may play causative or aggravating roles in our nation’s declining health. One might think that our nation’s leaders would rise to these revelations and push for more support for high quality, peer-reviewed research into the social and economic factors that may be affecting our collective health. Instead we have senators calling for a freeze in National Science Foundation’s political science research grants and our public health system remains grossly under-funded.
The blossoming of a wholesome sense of community (the sense that everyone’s involved in the support of their neighbors) that we witness in towns or cities following a calamity such as a massive flood or a tornado seems to be absent in our country as a whole. Indeed, in spite of our funding a massive and expensive industry focused on strengthening our “National Security” we have done nothing to enhance the security of the increasing numbers of our citizens living a marginal existence.
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