True Measures: Health Care Edition

April 30, 2009

It’s common practice recently to compare two statistics – life expectancy and infant mortality rates – of countries as a measure of effectiveness of health care systems.  These are not true measures of the quality of health care for many reasons.  Consider two. 

First, the methods for collecting the data and counting can vary from country to country.  One country might include in infant mortality only the deaths of infants born near full term while another country includes all infant deaths, even from premature deliveries.  My golf scores could compare to those of the pros if I only counted the strokes on the first nine holes.

These stats are used for two reasons. First, they’re easy to obtain.  Second, they serve political purposes.  Why else would an organization release such data without making clear the potential pitfalls in the data?

Second, many factors other than health care impact life expectancy and infant mortality rates.   The motives of anyone suggesting that health care is the only factor, or the primary factor, influencing these two stats should be questioned. 

Truer measures exist, but are harder to quantify.  What percentage of patients die from infection while under the care of the health care provider?  How does the patient’s chance for survival compare across countries for specific procedures?  

The truest measure: given a choice which country’s health care would you use?

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