Skip to main content

America flunks its health exam

By Aaron Carroll, Special to CNN
updated 2:38 PM EST, Fri January 11, 2013
A report finds that Americans have
A report finds that Americans have "shorter lives and poorer health," coming in last in key areas behind 16 other rich nations
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Aaron Carroll: New study shows U.S. health and lifespan worst of 17 rich countries
  • He says it's because of personal choices, systemic woes. Poverty high, health care uneven
  • He says this particularly affects youth, plagued by sickness, violence, high mortality
  • Carroll: Don't make it political. The richest country in the world must improve public health

Editor's note: Dr. Aaron E. Carroll is an associate professor of pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine and the director of the university's Center for Health Policy and Professionalism Research. He blogs about health policy at The Incidental Economist and tweets at @aaronecarroll.

(CNN) -- A just-released report from the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council is making news by clearly illustrating that Americans have "shorter lives and poorer health." This is somewhat shocking, given how much we spend on health care each year — more than any of the 16 other rich countries surveyed in the study. What's even more upsetting is that this report focused quite heavily on people who are young. In the United States, even that group fared poorly.

Aaron Carroll
Aaron Carroll

Why is this?

Some of the reasons involve choices make at a personal level. We eat too much, abuse drugs too often, wear seat belts too rarely and commit violence against each other to often.

Systemic issues are also to blame. We have higher levels of poverty than comparable countries, and our safety net programs are less capable of catching people when they fall. And too many also have too much trouble accessing the health care system, resulting in inefficient, ineffective and often absent care.

It's far too easy to let these dreadful statistics become obscured in a politically charged argument. Let's avoid that. This report is so stark that it's going to take a concerted effort on the part of the government, the media, the health care system and everyday citizens to turn things around. Our personal choices are bad. Our safety nets are bad. Our health care system is bad. It's all bad. How bad?

When compared with peer countries, the United States was the absolute worst with respect to still births, infant mortality and low birth weight. Some have tried to blame this on "coding" differences. In other words, they will claim that other countries will refuse to define a premature birth as we do, resulting in artificially high numbers in the United States. But when this report recalculated the rates to exclude such births equally in all countries, we still ranked last.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Things don't get better after birth. The chance that a child in the United States will die before age 5 is higher than in any of the other 16 peer countries. Injuries are the most common cause of death, but the United States also has the highest rate of deaths caused by negligence or abuse.

And violence is decidedly an American problem. Homicide is the third most common cause of death in children age 1-4.

From age 5-19, the trend continues. Kids this age in the United States have the worst health ranking of the 17 studied countries. More than one-third of U.S. children age 5-17 are obese or overweight, the highest of any peer country. The adolescent pregnancy rate in the United States is about 3.5 times the average of others. Additionally, the rates of sexually transmitted infections, including syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia are the worst compared to peer countries.

Nor are these children exempt from death. Injury deaths are more common in 15- to 19-year-olds in the United States than in any other studied country. Homicide claims the second highest number of lives in 15- to -24-year-olds, and 4 in 5 of those deaths involve guns. Males between the ages of 15 and 19 are five times as likely to die from violence in the United States than in other countries.

Obamacare: What's next?
The NRA, guns and health care
Chicago gang members reflect on violence
Teens work to save Chicago's south side

Even as young adults, ages 25-34, mortality remains consistently upsetting and preventable. Unintentional injuries remain the No. 1 cause of death. The risk of dying by violence remains seven times higher for males in the United States ages 20-24 than in other countries.

We have to work together to make these numbers better. Some of them can be improved with public health measures. We need to help Americans be less obese, to have fewer accidents and to commit less violence. There are lots of local studies and initiatives that propose ways to fix these things, but our public health system is woefully underfunded, and translating any promising findings to meaningful societal change poses a huge challenge.

We also need to improve our safety nets to help children at the lowest end of the socioeconomic ladder do better, even before they are born. Pregnant women, babies and children suffer from hunger and malnutrition far too often in the richest country in the world. Yet we still debate the merits of the federally funded WIC (Womens, Infants and Children) program, school lunches and food assistance to needy families.

Finally, we need to find a way to improve access to the health care system. The Medicaid program covers one in every three births and one in every three children in the United States, and it's still not enough. As some states balk at expanding Medicaid to cover many of the poorest uninsured, some are still talking about reducing funding to the already stretched program. There's no question that we have the capability, the knowledge and the resources to care for people. It's just a matter of doing it better.

There will be some who deny these results. Others will try to use them for political gain. That would be a mistake. We have to accept these findings and begin to work holistically to improve them. Being last just isn't the American way.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Aaron Carroll.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
updated 3:26 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT