High Costs of US Medical Procedures

In: Science US Economy

6 Mar 2012

A recent study compared the cost of procedures across different countries. It’s interesting to me that some people think our “free market” medical system is the best, without realizing that health care services here in no way resemble a market.  The related article runs through a number of ways our system is dysfunctional.


11 Responses to High Costs of US Medical Procedures



March 6th, 2012 at 11:49 am

I am a big fan of data visualization techniques, but I must say I find the frequency with which you use your blog for political expression off putting.



March 6th, 2012 at 12:13 pm

DanR – that’s the way the cookie crumbles sometimes. Personally, I enjoy blogs that slightly annoy me and challenge my preconceptions. Of course, feel free to ignore those portions of my musings – I claim to be an expert in nothing.

That said, any medical system in which prices do not reflect either actual costs, or supply and demand, is not “market based” under any stretch of the imagination — which helps explain the data visualization.



March 6th, 2012 at 1:26 pm

I guess. I’m an economist for a medical insurance company, after having worked directly for a hospital system. From what I’ve seen, I will agree that the medical market in the US is highly distorted.

My only criticism is that you tend to post infographics and charts that sometimes spring from slightly left of center. It’s your prerogative, of course. It is your blog after all.

But I just wanted to chime in to let you know that sometimes that gets in the way of my appreciation of the blog as a pure source for viewing well executed data visualization.

Take all this with a grain of salt. I’ve been reading for years and will continue to do so. I just wanted to provide my 2 cents.


Marc Behiels

March 6th, 2012 at 2:56 pm

find it quite puzzling that the first interpretation of data is left/right political and not simply a presentation of facts. Who cares what the agenda is as long as the data is factual.
Yes – understand all data can be skewed to fit what you want to say – but numbers are numbers – numbers don’t lie 🙂



March 6th, 2012 at 4:21 pm

DanR- I completely agree, although I probably wouldn’t click on half the things or comment if they weren’t so biased. But I hardly ever get a response from Dustin, so way to go!

Marc- The data isn’t biased. The commentary and selection of data is what’s biased.

Was there any mention of wait times, quality, extra taxes or subsidies in that article? The Left loves to cherry pick data like this. How about we apply this same standard of high costs to public education? Would you call our educational system dysfunctional if outcomes were the same or better in countries that spend half as much per student?



March 6th, 2012 at 4:41 pm

There are plenty of blogs out there that post just the graphs and infographics, if that’s what you want. I like to add my reaction to them. Sometimes it’s the design that catches my eye, sometimes it’s the content.

I figure most people get into debates about the content over on the original sites. Personally, I am under no illusion that I’m going to fix the medical, school, or political systems with my one or two sentence observations. I just try to provide a little insight or context that I think could be helpful.

Feel free to jump in and add your own views – but don’t expect me to get into long debates with you.



March 6th, 2012 at 7:40 pm

What an interesting conversation.

Dustin made the argument that the US medical system in no way resembles a free market. DanR took offense because he saw that assessment as being leftist, but I completely disagree.

To me, the leftist’s position would be “We’ve tried the free market, and it doesn’t work.” The rightist’s response would be “No we haven’t, it’s not a free market at all.”

What this conversation proves is that even clearly presented data can be used to argue either side of a complicated question. “We need more/less government intervention in health care. Just look!”



March 7th, 2012 at 1:12 am

My comment is about how some people (in the US of A) defince “left” and “right” – formerly I was amused and thought it was a joke when the health insurance system in Germany (from which I benefit) is called socialist or communist. By now I do not see this so much as a joke – I am deeply confused how a country which says “In God we trust” on its money can have such strong opposition to organize solidarity schemes where the richer and the poorer organize, all together, schemes to cover health costs.

The German economy – still doing quite well in spite of global problems – is not a “pure market economy” but a “market economy adjusted with social concerns – “soziale Marktwirtschaft.”

And I like the presentations – and the selections in ChartPorn a lot.

@DanR for your information. – I just got a letter from my German (left wing?) health insurance: they did well last year for my age group, so I have to pay less this year. Same in the USA?



March 7th, 2012 at 4:20 am

I agree with DC and Norbert about how strange it is that a statement about health care not being *enough* of a free market can be taken to be left wing!

I guess with this being US election season we’re going to see a lot of knee-jerk “How dare you say that! You’re not one of us!” comments.

(I was looking for where my country (UK) fits in on this chart until I remembered it’s a measure of cost per person and therefore would be £0.00 in all cases… AFAIK the fairest equivalent general cost comparison would be % of GDP, which is 15% of GDP in USA compared to 8% of GDP in the UK. There’s a pile of international comparison stats of various health related measures at http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2010/mar/22/us-healthcare-bill-rest-of-world-obama none of which on their own feel like a good index for quality but they’re useful together)



March 7th, 2012 at 12:19 pm

To clarify, I didn’t mean to say that I thought this particular post was extremely biased, only that there is a general trend amongst the posts to be generally left leaning. This is fine. As I said above, it’s Dustin’s blog; he can post whatever he likes. I only wanted to express how it affected me as a reader.

And the sense in which this particular post seems somewhat biased is not due to the fact that Dustin is suggesting that the US does not have a free market in healthcare (it doesn’t). It is partly due to the deference to Ezra Klein (of JournoList fame) as the source of explanation for the differences in costs. And it is also the larger implication of the chart, which is that most of these countries with lower medical costs are ones with nationally administered health insurance.

Putting “free market” in scare quotes _might_ be suggesting that moving toward a freer market would be preferable, but the more obvious interpretation would be to infer (as many do) that healthcare is simply not a service that can function properly without heavy regulation and/or a national plan. Given this, I interpreted the post to be suggesting that the US is a high cost outlier, and, ergo, the only way to bring it in line with the rest of the international community is to adopt a system similar to theirs.

If this is an overly sensitive or biased reading of the post, forgive me. But, as I said before, it would be in keeping with the general tone and themes of the blog in the past.


T Xoxy

March 11th, 2012 at 1:00 pm

What you could be seeing is the difference between data-based vs ideology-based analysis.

My first job — which I loved very much — was for a consulting firm that performed analyses of policy options for various Federal agencies. I got out of the business after a change in administrations. We used to get contracts to perform open-ended studies of issues facing the government. The conclusions were whatever the data and the science lead us to. With the new administration the RFPs began to state the specific conclusions that that study was required to support.

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