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Misleading Statistics about American Health Care

Healthcare Reform • August 7, 2009 at 12:00 AM • Written by: PeopleKeep Team

metroI want to tell you a little story that might not seem like it has anything to do with health care.  Please bear with me.  I'll tie it all together.

A friend of mine told me about a thesis defense he attended during college.  A math major was trying to determine if the Metro system in St. Louis (my home town) caused increased amounts of crime.  This student studied the crime rates near Metro stops and compared them to crime rates in areas without Metro stops.  The conclusion was that there was more crime near Metro stops, so the Metro clearly increased crime rates.

As the student was presenting his findings everyone in the room grew more and more uncomfortable.  This kid spent a year of his life on this research, and it was all completely wrong.  The Metro in St. Louis travels almost exclusively through very poor areas because low-income people need mass transit more than wealthy people (who own cars).  Of course there's less crime in the rich suburbs than in the ghetto.

By confusing correlation with causality, this student ended up with completely worthless results. Just because there is more crime in and area and there is a Metro stop, that doesn't mean the Metro stop is causing the crime.

So what does this have to do with healthcare?  I'm sure you've heard the numbers saying that American healthcare is terrible because we spend more than other developed nations and yet we have a lower average life span.

OMG!!!! That must mean that our doctors are stupid and our hospitals are poorly run.  Let's all move to Canada!

Wrong.  Is it possible that the skyrocketing obesity rates in America have something to do with our short life spans?  Maybe our well above average stress levels are involved.  The average American simply doesn't live a very healthy lifestyle compared to people in many other countries, so why are we blaming all our problems on the health care system?

If you think these statistics show that America has below-average health care, you're making the same mistake the math major from my anecdote above made.  We have correlation.  We don't have causality.

If you want a more meaningful statistic, I'd check out the numbers surrounding medical tourism.  Apparently, between 60,000 and 85,000 foreigners traveled to America last year to receive medical care.  Why would these people come to America if we have lousy health care?  It's because we actually have some of the best hospitals and doctors in the world.

There's not much point to this post other than this:  If someone is throwing numbers around, particularly regarding a politically charged topic like healthcare, it's worth it to stop and evaluate the underlying logic behind their argument.  You can't argue with the numbers, but you can argue what they mean.

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