[News release] Medical expansion has led people worldwide to feel less healthy
In 28 countries, more medicine has unexpected effects
COLUMBUS, Ohio – Across much of the Western world, 25 years of expansion of the medical system has actually led to people feeling less healthy over time, a new study has found.
A researcher at The Ohio State University used several large multinational datasets to examine changes in how people rated their health between 1981 and 2007 and compared that to medical expansion in 28 countries that are members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
During that time, the medical industry expanded dramatically in many of those countries, which you might expect would lead to people who felt healthier.
“Access to more medicine and medical care doesn’t really improve our subjective health. For example, in the United States, the percentage of Americans reporting very good health decreased from 39 percent to 28 percent from 1982 to 2006,” Zheng said.
In fact, Zheng conducted what is called a “counterfactual analysis” using the data to see what would have happened if the medical industry hadn’t expanded at all in these countries since 1982. In this analysis, other factors that are generally linked to improved health, such as economic development, were left unchanged.
Under this scenario, the analysis predicted that self-rated health would have increased in these 28 countries. For example, the percentage of Americans reporting very good health could have increased by about 10 percent.
“It seems counterintuitive, but that’s what the evidence shows. More medicine doesn’t lead to citizens feeling better about their health – it actually hurts,” Zheng said.
The study appears in the July 2015 issue of the journal Social Science Research.
The OECD is an organization of countries, including the United States and many countries in Europe, that accept the principles of representative democracy and free-market economy. This study included information from OECD Health Data, World Development Indicators, the World Values Survey and theEuropean Values Study.
Zheng measured three kinds of medical expansion. One was medical investment, which includes health care spending per capita and total health employment; medical professionalization and specialization, which includes the number of practicing physicians and specialists; and expanded pharmaceutical industry, which includes pharmaceutical sales per capita.
Zheng said there are several reasons why medical expansion may actually lead people to feel less healthy. For one, more diseases are discovered or “created,” which increases the risk of being diagnosed with “new” diseases. Three examples, he said, include the rise in diagnoses of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression and autism.
In addition, there is more aggressive screening, which turns up more diseases in people. Overdiagnosis can potentially cause harm to perfectly healthy people, he said.
As more medical care becomes more widely available, people may expect better health, perhaps to an unrealistic degree, Zheng said.
“Consumers begin demanding more medical treatment because of the declines in subjective health and the increasing expectations of good health, and medical expansion continues. It is a cycle,” Zheng said.
In a separate but related study published online in Social Science Research, Zheng found that Americans’ confidence in medicine has declined over the last three decades, again at the same time as medical expansion.
“The decline in confidence has occurred at the same rate, regardless of gender, age, income or any other factor,” Zheng said.
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