Canadian healthcare system shows how much money America could save

The Great White North has found a way to provide universal healthcare with more salubrious results and trimmed national costs. Take notes, America.

  • The United States scores dramatically lower than other high-income countries in healthcare benchmarks, despite overspending them.
  • A recent report published in JAMA suggests this discrepancy results from runaway administrative costs and U.S. practitioners charging more for the same medical services.
  • By taking lessons from Canada's single-payer system, the U.S. may be able to reduce its healthcare costs but simultaneously improve medical access for wider range of the population.

Americans are split over Canada's single-payer healthcare system. Some see it as a model to be adopted by the United States. Others see it as an inefficient system that will hinder America's competitive edge. Proponents of either side can, of course, regale you with stories of former neighbors, distant cousins, or one-time coworkers who fled across the border to seek that elusively greener healthcare on the other side.

In truth, each system has its flaws. Canada's healthcare is universal, assuming you ignore the gaping oversight of not covering essential prescriptions; meanwhile, the U.S. has some of the best healthcare in the world, if you don't mind bankrolling a litany of unnecessary tests and treatments.

But Canada dominates its southern neighbor in one healthcare facet: cost savings. Despite publicly funding universal healthcare, Canada spent only 10.45 percent of its national GDP in 2014. The United State's expenditure was 17.4 percent of GDP. Per capita, Canada spent $4,641. The U.S.? Double that.

How does Canada do so much more with less?

Amputating administrative costs

(Photo from Our World in Data)

In 2014, Canada spent 10.45 percent of its national GDP on healthcare. The United State's expenditure was 17.4 percent.

According to a report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the reason the U.S. outspends Canada — and 10 other high-income countries —is not due to social spending or healthcare utilization. The culprit was price inflation across the board.

The report detailed that in the U.S. medical practitioners earn significantly more, individual services cost more, and Americans spend more on pharmaceuticals per capita.

Administrative costs were also singled out as a major price driver. According to the report, U.S. administration accounted for 8 percent of healthcare expenditures. In other high-income countries, that amount ranged from 1 to 3 percent.

"We have this discombobulated, fragmented system that leads us to have very high administrative costs, and everything is disconnected," said Dan Polsky, executive director of the University of Pennsylvania's Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics. "You have to go from one system to another when you go from one provider to another. Some health [information] gets lost with the transfer from one provider to the next. And there's a private healthcare system that funds you when you are under 65, and when you're over 65, you get funded by Medicare."

A simplified overview of the U.S. healthcare system shows it comprises Medicaid, Medicare, Tricare, the Veteran's Health Administration, and a panoply of private health plans.

Further adding to the discombobulation, many Americans manage coverage through a patchwork of policies. A senior citizen, for example, may be on Medicare (a government-run program) but augment her coverage with a Medigap policy (insurance provided by a private company specifically to offset Medicare costs).

Meanwhile, the Great White North is currently debating whether to extend universal healthcare to encompass prescriptions. A report published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, titled "How to pay for national insurance," found that implementing such a plan in 2020 would require $9.7 billion in new public funding.

The benefits? In addition to providing universal access to pharmaceuticals, national pharmacare would save the private sector $13.9 billion, a net savings of $4.2 billion.

The CMAJ report found that "[a]ccess to medicine is best facilitated when direct charges to patients are limited" and "[c]ost control is best achieved by single-payer systems that reduce administration costs and consolidate purchasing power."

So how much would America save if it adopted Canada's low cost, universal approach? According to a Commonwealth Fund report, the U.S. would save $1.4 trillion if it adopted Canada's healthcare approach.

Spending more, getting less

If the U.S. adopted Canada's healthcare approach, it could save as many as 101,000 lives from preventable deaths.\u200b

(Image from the Commonwealth Fund)

If the U.S. adopted Canada's healthcare approach, it could save as many as 101,000 lives from preventable deaths.

The United States' unprecedented spending would be worthwhile if it could produce results above and beyond those of Canada and other high-income countries. Sadly, the data suggests the opposite is true.

As noted in the JAMA report, the U.S. system covers less of its population — 90 percent compared to the 99–100 percent range of its peers. Americans go to the doctor less often and spend fewer recover days in the hospital.

The consequences of these differences are stark. Canadian citizens sport a higher life expectancy (82.21 years compared with 79.24 in the U.S.). The country's maternal mortality rate is also significantly lower. Only 27 pregnant women died in Canada in 2015, compared with 550 in the U.S. In fact, the United States' maternal mortality rate is the worst in the developed world.

As for those infamous Canadian wait times, they do exist but their effect on the Canadian healthcare system has been greatly exaggerated. They are mostly applied to elective procedures as a means of reducing cost.

As such, adopting Canada's healthcare approach would save the U.S. more than money. The aforementioned Commonwealth Fund report noted that the U.S. would avoid 101,000 fewer preventable deaths, 4,800 fewer infant deaths, and 42 million fewer American adults neglecting care because of costs.

Saving more than money

How is it that the U.S. system outspends so many other high-income countries, yet produces far less salubrious outcomes? The answer is an unequal distribution of healthcare, with spending being concentrated at the socio-economic top.

In the United States, the top 1 percent of spenders account for more than 20 percent of total healthcare expenditures. The spending of the top 5 percent accounts for almost half.

According to Esteban Oritz-Ospina and Max Roser, inequality in healthcare spending is to be expected — the elderly and individuals with complicated health conditions will always require larger expenditures. However, the discrepancy of spending in the data suggests to them that the United States suffers from an "inequality of access over and above inequality in need."

In contrast, Canada uses cost control to curb administration costs, allowing the country to cast a wider healthcare safety net that extends from the top to the bottom.

In sum, Canada's healthcare system isn't without its flaws, but we shouldn't make the best the enemy of the good. If the United States would learn from Canada's example, it could do a lot of good — and save some money in the process.

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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