The New York Times recently declared "the disturbing truth ... that ... the United States is a laggard not a leader in providing good medical care."
As usual, the Times editors get it wrong.
They find evidence in a 2000 World Health Organization (WHO) rating of 191 nations and a Commonwealth Fund study of wealthy nations published last May.
In the WHO rankings, the United States finished 37th, behind nations like Morocco, Cyprus and Costa Rica. Finishing first and second were France and Italy. Michael Moore makes much of this in his movie "Sicko."
The Commonwealth Fund looked at Australia, Canada, Germany, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States -- and ranked the U.S. last or next to last on all but one criterion.
So the verdict is in. The vaunted U.S. medical system is one of the worst.
But there's less to these studies than meets the eye. They measure something other than quality of medical care. So saying that the U.S. finished behind those other countries is misleading.
First let's acknowledge that the U.S. medical system has serious problems. But the problems stem from departures from free-market principles. The system is riddled with tax manipulation, costly insurance mandates and bureaucratic interference. Most important, six out of seven health-care dollars are spent by third parties, which means that most consumers exercise no cost-consciousness. As Milton Friedman always pointed out, no one spends other people's money as carefully as he spends his own.
Even with all that, it strains credulity to hear that the U.S. ranks far from the top. Sick people come to the United States for treatment. When was the last time you heard of someone leaving this country to get medical care? The last famous case I can remember is Rock Hudson, who went to France in the 1980s to seek treatment for AIDS.
So what's wrong with the WHO and Commonwealth Fund studies? Let me count the ways.
The WHO judged a country's quality of health on life expectancy. But that's a lousy measure of a health-care system. Many things that cause premature death have nothing do with medical care. We have far more fatal transportation accidents than other countries. That's not a health-care problem.
Similarly, our homicide rate is 10 times higher than in the U.K., eight times higher than in France, and five times greater than in Canada.
When you adjust for these "fatal injury" rates, U.S. life expectancy is actually higher than in nearly every other industrialized nation.
Diet and lack of exercise also bring down average life expectancy.