Is health care good for you?

by on October 20, 2003 at 8:10 am in Current Affairs, Economics, Science | Permalink

Robin Hanson frequently tries to convince me that more health care, at the margin, doesn’t make us any healthier. A well-known Rand study found that 30 percent increases in health care consumption did not make people healthier. Nor does the international cross-sectional evidence drive the point home. Once you adjust for income, greater health care spending does not appear to make people healthier.

Robin now sends me this study, which shows that greater Medicare spending doesn’t make people any healthier. Areas with high Medicare spending don’t produce extra health, and yes, this result does adjust for the relevant variables. This, of course, would make Medicare reform a good deal easier, you cut cut spending without fearing catastrophe.

Why, then, do we spend so much on health care? Robin claims we do it to “show that we care” for our relatives. I’ve suggested we
do it simply to avoid the feeling of regret, should one of our loved ones die, and we then feel we “didn’t do enough.”

By the way, here is one of Robin’s essays, “Buy Health, Not Health Care,” he suggests that your doctor should lose a lot of money when you die.

My take: I never manage to win this debate with Robin. I don’t have much evidence to cite in favor of health care spending (email me if you know some). But I am suspicious when I hear the claim that health care does not matter at the margin. Which margin? The last unit you bought? The next unit you might buy? And how big a unit? No one wants to give up penicillin. And exactly which margin are these studies measuring?

On one hand, the economist in me would be happier if I had some evidence that all the extra American health care spending was bringing a concrete return. On the other hand, I hate going to the doctor, in fact I never go. If I could tell my wife that this was rational, well, that would be better than making the economist in me happy.

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