Albert Einstein determined that time is relative. And when it comes to health care, five years can be both a long and a short amount of time.
In August 2018, I launched the Fixing Healthcare podcast. At the time, the medium felt like the perfect auditory companion to the books and articles I’d been writing. By bringing on world-renowned guests and engaging in difficult but meaningful discussions, I hoped the show would have a positive impact on American medicine. After five years and 100 episodes, now is an opportune time to look back and examine how health care has improved and in what ways American medicine has become more problematic.
Here’s a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly since episode one of Fixing Healthcare:
Drug breakthroughs and government actions headline medicine’s biggest wins over the past five years.
Arguably the most massive (and controversial) health care triumph over the past five years was the introduction of vaccines, which proved successful beyond any reasonable expectation. At first, health experts expressed doubts that Pfizer, Moderna, and others could create a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine with messenger RNA (mRNA) technology. After all, no one had succeeded in more than two decades of trying.
Thanks in part to Operation Warp Speed, the government-funded springboard for research, our nation produced multiple vaccines within less than a year. Previously, the quickest vaccine took four years to develop (mumps). All others required a minimum of five years.
The vaccines were pivotal in ending the coronavirus pandemic, and their success has opened the door to other life-saving drugs, including those that might prevent or fight cancer. And, of course, our world is now better prepared for when the next viral pandemic strikes.
Originally designed to help patients manage Type 2 diabetes, drugs like Ozempic have been helping people reverse obesity—a condition closely correlated with diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
For decades, America’s $150 billion a year diet industry has failed to curb the nation’s continued weight gain. So too have calls for increased exercise and proper nutrition, including restrictions on sugary sodas and fast foods.
In contrast, these GLP-1 medications are highly effective. They help overweight and obese people lose 15 to 25 pounds on average with side effects that are manageable for nearly all users.
The biggest stumbling block to their widespread use is the drug’s exorbitant price (upwards of $16,000 for a year’s supply).
With the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, Congress took meaningful action to lower drug prices, a move the CBO estimates would reduce the federal deficit by $237 billion over 10 years.
It’s a good start. Americans today pay twice as much for the same medications as people in Europe largely because of Congressional legislation passed in 2003. That law, the Medicare Prescription Drug Price Negotiation Act, made it illegal for Health and Human Services (HHS) to negotiate drug prices with manufacturers—even for the individuals publicly insured through Medicare and Medicaid.
Now, under provisions of the new Inflation Reduction Act, the government will be able to negotiate the prices of 10 widely prescribed medications based on how much Medicare’s Part D program spends. The lineup is expected to include prescription treatments for arthritis, cancer, asthma, and cardiovascular disease. Unfortunately, the program won’t take effect until 2026. And as of now, several legal challenges from both drug manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are pending.
Spiking costs, ongoing racial inequalities, and millions of Americans without health insurance make up three disappointing health care failures of the past five years.
Cost and quality
The U.S. spends nearly twice as much on health care per citizen as other countries, yet our nation lags behind 10 of the wealthiest countries in medical performance and clinical outcomes. As a result, Americans die younger and experience more complications from chronic diseases than people in peer nations.
As prices climb ever-higher, at least half of Americans can’t afford to pay their out-of-pocket medical bills, which remain the leading cause of U.S. bankruptcy. And with rising insurance premiums alongside growing out-of-pocket expenses, more people are delaying their medical care and rationing their medications, including life-essential drugs like insulin. This creates a vicious cycle that will likely prolong today’s health care problems well into the future.
Inequalities in American medicine persist along racial lines—despite action-oriented words from health officials that date back decades.
Today, patients in minority populations receive unequal and inequitable medical treatment when compared to white patients. That’s true even when adjusting for differences in geography, insurance status, and socioeconomics.
Racism in medical care has been well-documented throughout history. But the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic provided several recent and deadly examples. From testing to treatment, Black and Latino patients received both poorer quality and less medical care, doubling and even tripling their chances of dying from the disease.
The problems can be observed across the medical spectrum. Studies show Black women are still less likely to be offered breast reconstruction after mastectomy than white women. Research also finds that Black patients are 40% less likely to receive pain medication after surgery. Although technology could have helped to mitigate health disparities, our nation’s unwillingness to acknowledge the severity of the problem has made the problem worse.
Although there are now more than 90 million Americans enrolled in Medicaid, there are still 30 million people without any health insurance. This disturbing reality comes a full decade after the passage of the Affordable Care Act.
On Capitol Hill, there is no plan in place to reduce the number of uninsured. Moreover, many states are looking to significantly rollback their Medicaid enrollment in the post-COVID era. Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that between 8 million and 24 million people will lose Medicaid coverage during the unwinding of the continuous enrollment provisions implemented during the pandemic. Without coverage, people have a harder time obtaining the preventive services they need and, as a result, they suffer more chronic diseases and die younger.
An overall decrease in longevity, along with higher maternal mortality and a worsening mental-health crisis, comprise the greatest failures of U.S. health care over the past five years.
Despite radical advances in medical science over the past five years, American life expectancy is back to where it was at the turn of the 20th century, according to CDC data.
Alongside environmental and social factors are a number of medical causes for the nation’s dip in longevity. Research demonstrated that many of the 1 million-plus COVID-19 deaths were preventable. So, too, was the nation’s rise in opioid deaths and teen suicides.
Regardless of exact causation, Americans are living two years less on average than when we started the Fixing Healthcare podcast five years ago.
Compared to peer nations, the United States is the only country with a growing rate of mothers dying from childbirth. The U.S. experiences 17.4 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births. In contrast, Norway is at 1.8 and the Netherlands at 3.0.
The risk of dying during delivery or in the post-partum period is dramatically higher for Black women in the United States. Even when controlling for economic factors, Black mothers still suffer twice as many deaths from childbirth as white women.
And with growing restrictions on a woman’s right to choose, the maternal mortality rate will likely continue to rise in the United States going forward.
Finally, the mental health of our country is in decline with rates of anxiety, depression and suicide on the rise.
These problems were bad prior to COVID-19, but years of isolation and social distancing only aggravated the problem. Suicide is now a leading cause of death for teenagers. Now, more than 1 in every 1,000 youths take their own lives each year. The newest data show that suicides across the U.S. have reached an all-time high and now exceed homicides.
Even with the expanded use of telemedicine, mental health in our nation is likely to become worse as Americans struggle to access and afford the services they require.
In looking at the three lists, I’m reminded of a baseball slugger who can occasionally hit awe-inspiring home runs but strikes out most of the time. The crowd may love the big hitter and celebrate the long ball, but in both baseball and health care, failing at the basics consistently results in more losses than wins.
Over the past five years, American medicine has produced a losing record. New drugs and surgical breakthroughs have made headlines, but the deeper, more systemic failures of American health care have rarely penetrated the news cycle.
If our nation wants to make the next five years better and healthier than the last five, elected officials and health care leaders will need to make major improvements.