U.S. healthcare quality is better but still not as good as other countries

Although the quality of healthcare in United States is improving, it still falls behind countries of comparable wealth in several key measures, according to an insight brief by the Peterson-Kaiser Health System Tracker, an online information hub dedicated to monitoring and assessing the performance of the U.S. health system.

On the plus side, the country's health system has improved on several quality measures, including mortality amendable to healthcare, the number of hospital-acquired infections and the percentage of children who receive recommended vaccines, according to the brief. It also outperforms other countries on admission rates for uncontrolled diabetes and wait times to see specialists.

However, the report finds that the U.S. has worsened on other measures, such as health-related quality of life (self-reported healthy days and days in which activities were interrupted by poor health). In addition, comparable countries outperform the U.S. on measures such as life expectancy at birth, cost-related barriers to healthcare access and the prevalence of retained surgical items.

"In some cases, such as the rates of all-cause mortality, premature death, death amenable to healthcare, and disease burden, the U.S. is also not improving as quickly as other countries, which means the gap is growing," the brief says.

Although national quality indicators can provide a snapshot into the quality of care in America, the brief notes that many of the current measures are flawed.

"Establishing a new set of national healthcare system quality measures that can be presented in a consistent manner over time would permit more definitive assessments about the status and trends in healthcare system quality and could be used to bring healthcare quality to the forefront of policy discussions and decisions," analysts wrote in the brief. 

Indeed, as the healthcare industry debates which quality measures are the most meaningful, one expert earlier this year said the problem with current benchmarks is that they focus on what is easy to assess rather than what matters most to patients, FierceHealthcare reported. "The quality programs grew out of two realizations: Healthcare is unsafe and outcomes are poor," Scott Wallace, a visiting professor at Dartmouth's Geisel School of Medicine, told the Wall Street Journal. "But there is no single measure of a doctor's or hospital's quality that will fix those problems. Instead, we're measuring processes."

The latest report isn't the first time analysts have noted that the U.S., healthcare system falls short in quality. Last year the Commonwealth Fund found the country spends more than most countries but ranks last in quality compared to 10 other industrialized Western nations. 

"Although the U.S. spends more on healthcare than any other country and has the highest proportion of specialist physicians, survey findings indicate that from the patients' perspective, and based on outcome indicators, the performance of American healthcare is severely lacking," the Commonwealth Fund report stated.

To learn more:
- read the insight brief