Spending More On Health Care Doesn’t Guarantee Better Treatment

Considering that the United States spends more than any other developed nation on its health care — the U.S. spent almost $2.6 trillion, nearly 18 percent of its GDP, on health services in 2010 — Americans might hope they’re getting some bang for their buck. But since the U.S. health care system is ranked a distant 37th compared to other countries around the world, that doesn’t seem to be the case. And a new study suggests that national trend might hold true on a smaller level as well, since the hospitals that invest more money in their patients aren’t necessarily providing them with any better treatment.

In an attempt to discern an overall trend, a Virginia-based nonprofit research institution analyzed more than 60 studies comparing health care spending with health care quality. The studies ranged in scale from individual hospital to state-wide data, and they each measured “quality” by tracking information like whether hospitals that spent more money on their patients had fewer in-hospital deaths, whether the doctors and nurses working in those hospitals followed guidelines better, or whether states that spent more money on their Medicare programs did a better job of treating their older residents’ conditions.

But the researchers didn’t find any common thread between the dozens of studies. “The bottom line was that no matter how you drill down into the results, at every level the results are just all over the map,” researcher Peter Hussey told Reuters Health.

Hussey explained that, in order to figure out which areas of our health care system can be cut without threatening to sacrifice the quality of Americans’ care, the U.S. needs to do more research on the patient outcomes that are likely directly related to specific types of health spending.

Better communication between doctors and patients could also help health costs from continuing to rise. Patients don’t always understand the cost and quality comparisons between different types of medical treatment, and sometimes agree to unnecessary, costly measures that they believe will safeguard their health. As a Kaiser Health News reporter’s struggle to discern the cost of her doctor-recommended MRI scan illustrates, even the savviest patients often can’t figure out how expensive their procedures are. And one doctor from Harvard Medical School told Reuters that many medical professionals are also part of the problem, since most of them don’t have any idea what the drugs they prescribe or the tests they order actually cost their patients.