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Health Aff (Millwood). 2010 Nov;29(11):2105-13. doi: 10.1377/hlthaff.2010.0073. Epub 2010 Oct 7.

What changes in survival rates tell us about us health care.

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  • 1Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University, New York City, NY, USA.


Many advocates of US health reform point to the nation's relatively low life-expectancy rankings as evidence that the health care system is performing poorly. Others say that poor US health outcomes are largely due not to health care but to high rates of smoking, obesity, traffic fatalities, and homicides. We used cross-national data on the fifteen-year survival of men and women over three decades to examine the validity of these arguments. We found that the risk profiles of Americans generally improved relative to those for citizens of many other nations, but Americans' relative fifteen-year survival has nevertheless been declining. For example, by 2005, fifteen-year survival rates for forty-five-year-old US white women were lower than in twelve comparison countries with populations of at least seven million and per capita gross domestic product (GDP) of at least 60 percent of US per capita GDP in 1975. The findings undercut critics who might argue that the US health care system is not in need of major changes.

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