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: