Which country in the Western Hemisphere has the longest life expectancy?
Unsurprisingly its Canada, at 82.2 years (pre-Covid).
But which country in the Americas comes in second?
Surprisingly, its Costa Rica at 80.8 years.
The United States, by far the richest country in the Americas, had a life expectancy of 78.4 years that was falling even before Covid.
How is it that Costa Rica outperforms not only the much richer United States, but also other somewhat richer countries like Panama, Mexico, Argentina, and the Dominican Republic?
Clearly they don’t do it by outspending us- Costa Rica spends the equivalent of $1600 dollars per person per year on health care, compared to nearly $12000 in the US (7.3% of their GDP goes to health care vs 16.8% for the US).
So what exactly is Costa Rica doing right? Atul Gawande tackles this question in his latest article for the New Yorker.
He argues that the key has been Costa Rica’s investment in primary care and public health. The US might may have many more of the world’s best (and most expensive) hospitals, but the easiest and cheapest health benefits come from keeping people out of hospitals in the first place.
the country has made public health—measures to improve the health of the population as a whole—central to the delivery of medical care. Even in countries with robust universal health care, public health is usually an add-on; the vast majority of spending goes to treat the ailments of individuals. In Costa Rica, though, public health has been a priority for decades.
In the nineteen-seventies, Costa Rica identified maternal and child mortality as its biggest source of lost years of life. The public-health units directed pregnant women to prenatal care and delivery in hospitals, where officials made sure that personnel were prepared to prevent and manage the most frequent dangers, such as maternal hemorrhage, newborn respiratory failure, and sepsis. Nutrition programs helped reduce food shortages and underweight births; sanitation and vaccination campaigns reduced infectious diseases, from cholera to diphtheria; and a network of primary-care clinics delivered better treatment for children who did fall sick. Clinics also provided better access to contraception; by 1990, the average family size had dropped to just over three children.
The strategy demonstrated rapid and dramatic results. In 1970, seven per cent of children died before their first birthday. By 1980, only two per cent did. In the course of the decade, maternal deaths fell by eighty per cent. The nation’s over-all life expectancy became the longest in Latin America, and kept growing. By 1985, Costa Rica’s life expectancy matched that of the United States.
Gawande goes on to describe how every Costa Rican gets a home visit from a health care worker at least once per year. This is quite the contrast to the US, where even getting primary care doctors to let you see them in their office can be a fight. I moved to Rhode Island last year and this week finally tried getting a primary care doctor here. I looked through the list of doctors covered by my insurance that my insurer said were accepting new patients and started making calls (by the way, why calls? do any doctors book appointments online?). 2 said that they actually weren’t taking new patients. 9 never answered the phone. The 12th doctor I tried, one farther away and lower-rated than I’d like, finally agreed to see me- in 3 months.
For anyone with less free time, determination, or insurance coverage, it would be natural to just give up after the 5th or the 10th “no”. Clearly many Americans do, leading manageable conditions like diabetes or high blood pressure to turn into acute health crises and expensive hospital visits.
I do think individual doctors could do better here by thinking through their appointment process from the patient’s perspective. But at its core this is simply a numbers issue- we don’t have enough primary care doctors to go around. We actually have fewer doctors per capita than Costa Rica, and relatively high share of specialists means that we have even fewer primary care doctors to go around. More medical school spots, more primary care residency spots, and fewer restrictions on immigrant doctors could go a long way way toward helping to US catch up to…. Costa Rica.
That, or their secret is just the volcanoes. This is surprisingly plausible- the US state with the longest life expectancy is also the one best known for volcanoes, Hawaii.