NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH

Is American Health Care Uniquely Inefficient?

Alan M. Garber, Jonathan Skinner

NBER Working Paper No. 14257
Issued in August 2008
NBER Program(s):   AG   HC   HE   PE   PR

The U.S. health system has been described as the most competitive, heterogeneous, inefficient, fragmented, and advanced system of care in the world. In this paper, we consider two questions: First, is the U.S. health care system productively efficient relative to other wealthy countries, in the sense of producing better health for a given bundle of hospital beds, physicians, nurses, and other factor inputs? Second, is the U.S. allocatively efficient relative to other countries, in the sense of providing highly valued care to consumers? For both questions, the answer is most likely no. Although no country can claim to have eliminated inefficiency, the U.S. has fragmented care, high administrative costs, and stands out with regard to heterogeneity in treatment because of race, income, and geography. The U.S. health care system is also more likely to pay for diagnostic tests, treatments, and other forms of care before effectiveness is established and with little consideration of the value they provide. A number of proposed reforms that are designed to ameliorate shortcomings of the U.S. health care system, such as quality improvement initiatives and coverage expansions, are unlikely by themselves to reduce expenditures. Addressing allocative inefficiency is a far more difficult task but central to controlling costs.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w14257

Published: Alan M. Garber & Jonathan Skinner, 2008. "Is American Health Care Uniquely Inefficient?," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 22(4), pages 27-50, Fall.

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