The Waiting Room: U.S. Health Insurance Facts & Figures

Scene from The Waiting Room.

In conjunction with the Independent Lens premiere of The Waiting Room on PBS [Monday, October 21 at 10 PM; check local listings], we’ve culled some revealing stats about American health care today. Clearly this is a hot topic, and a hot-button topic for that matter, but regardless of what your personal viewpoint is on the subject it’s hard to disagree that there are some astonishing figures out there.

[First of all, we highly recommend you download the Community Cinema Discussion Guide which is linked on The Waiting Room film page.  This guide goes into more detail on the topic of American health care, including comparisons of the Affordable Care Act and Single Payer.]

For instance, the Center for Disease Control conducted a National Health Interview Survey earlier this year that lead to some interesting revelations. Among the highlights of the CDC survey:

  • In the first 3 months of 2013, 46.0 million persons of all ages (14.8%) were uninsured at the time of interview, 57.4 million (18.5%) had been uninsured for at least part of the year prior to interview, and 34.5 million (11.1%) had been uninsured for more than a year at the time of interview.
  • In the first 3 months of 2013, 5.2 million (7.1%) children under age 18 were uninsured at the time of interview.

In general the survey revealed that the percentage of persons uninsured for at least part of the year was 18.5% (57.4 million).

A PBS Newshour piece on U.S. healthcare costs (from last year) compared the United States with other countries that are part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD):

  • There are fewer physicians per person than in most other OECD countries. In 2010, for instance, the U.S. had 2.4 practicing physicians per 1,000 people — well below below the OECD average of 3.1.
  • The number of hospital beds in the U.S. was 2.6 per 1,000 population in 2009, lower than the OECD average of 3.4 beds.
  • Life expectancy at birth increased by almost nine years between 1960 and 2010, but that’s less than the increase of over 15 years in Japan and over 11 years on average in OECD countries. The average American now lives 78.7 years in 2010, more than one year below the average of 79.8 years.

There’s a bright side, to be sure. The U.S. leads the world in health care research and cancer treatment, for instance. The five-year survival rate for breast cancer is higher in the U.S. than in other OECD countries and survival from colorectal cancer is also among the best, according to the group.

What’s interesting, too, is learning, in an interview with Mark Pearson, head of Division on Health Policy at OECD (in that same PBS piece), that the US does spend more on health care costs than just about any country, but is more wasteful about it, as well, especially administratively and bureaucratically:

Pearson: Spending on almost every area of health care is higher in the United States than in other countries. For example, nearly $900 per person per year goes on administrative costs. This is far higher than in, say, France, which spends $300 per person, but which also has a system in which health care services are reimbursed in a similar way to the U.S.

In part, higher costs are also because the U.S. has been slow to embrace the advantages of information and communications technology in improving the administration of its system and in cutting down on waste. In Sweden, for example, all drug prescribing is done electronically — a message is sent directly from the doctor’s office to the pharmacy. Not only does this cut down on medical errors, it is also thought to save 1-2 hours of work by the pharmacists per day.

 The Newshour piece also points to the American propensity for “over-testing and over-treating” (based on both patient and physician discretion, but also on, Pearson argues, fear of litigation and physician payment).  Meanwhile, the United States grades out as the second most obese nation on the list, after Greece, so it’s arguable that being generally overweight has also lead to more health care costs and needs.

Meanwhile (as cited in our discussion guide, via OSHA), more workers are injured in the health care and social assistance industry than in any other job category (653,900 cases of injury and illness, 152,000 more than the next closest industry, manufacturing).

And then, to bring this back to the film The Waiting Room and its titular topic, there’s this distressing fact:


The Waiting Room trailer:

About Craig Phillips

ITVS/Independent Lens Interactive Editor and film nerd, based in San Francisco.
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  • Robbie Moraes

    Thanks for this Communist report.

    • Nina

      Ok, so you’d rather just sit there an be fine with the horrible status quo, while the rest of the world outpaces us in EVERYTHING?

      • Adina Pelle

        not in everything, US leads in the number of people who believe in angels….that counts for something , no ????

    • RachelWood

      This documentary… a communist report?
      Explain how please.

  • Jay__Money

    Why we need affordable health care for the uninsured. To provide BASIC healthcare!

  • michele

    The Emergency Department has become the dumping grounds for anyone without insurance. It’s an extremely inefficient & expensive way to treat people with problems that are often simple if treated effectively early on by a health care provider who will see the person on a regular basis, unlike the ED, where the staff changes every shift. That said, I must compliment the heroic efforts of the ED staff to get help for everyone who walks in their door, & does it with grace, caring & good humor. God bless them all.

  • JB

    This program defines the need for ObamaCare. I live in Oakland and fortunately have insurance. I feel very badly for the masses in Oakland and elsewhere in need of medical access and must wait for the handout. ObamaCare should help this societal problem significantly. From what I’ve seen of the staff at Highland Hospital on this program all I can say is thank you for your dedication & care.Somebody needs to step up and you were first in line.

  • Mrs. Denise Williams

    I thought documentary represents what the president and the Democratic Party have fought so hard for. The unseen & untold stories of the underrepresented American people. The best investment this country can make is in its own people. Great documentary and my favorite storyline was on the little girls Daisha.

  • Katrina Williams

    Excellent. As an ER nurse I have to step back and put myself in the patient/family situation. Thank You for allowing me to see the other side.

  • RachelWood

    Amazing documentary …..highlighting a totally broken system.

  • Kim

    The statistics on wait times are skewed by those with non-emergent conditions (STD checks for example), who present to the emergency room for assessment and care. In my experience as a nurse, in an urban environment (aka lots of actual emergencies), there were many people who would come to the ED for concerns they should have been going to the Department of Health clinics for. Every night, we had multiple people come in between 10pm-4am for STD checks and then be upset because they had to wait while we cared for the stroke/heart attack/trauma patients. There is a lack of education about what the ED is for. It is not the only place for the uninsured to receive health care. It is not the only place where Medicaid is accepted. It is one of the only places which doesn’t require much effort to visit (no phone calls for operating hours, no appointment necessary, etc.), and guarantees you typically will not be turned away, even though you have need of a different form of health care (Dept of Health clinic for example). This strains the resources of time, money, and energy of the healthcare staff and system and skews wait times.

  • Tara IslandGirl Gordon

    This is why we needed the ACA.

  • RachelWood

    The insurance companies are doing their best to sabotage it, because they will lose their stronghold on our healthcare and that means profits go down, and it’s about time!!