National Geographic, well-known for pictures that move the soul and educate the mind, now speaks to us about health economics.

The graphic pictured here comes from the National Geographic blog. The line chart was constructed from statistics gathered by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) on health spending, utilization, and life expectancy published in OECD Health Data 2009.

The lines illustrate health spending versus life expectancy; the line thickness represents number of visits to doctors.

The U.S. data are featured on the upper red line. The conclusion presented by the graph is that while the U.S. spends far more per capita than other developed nations, life expectancy is relatively low vis-a-vis other nations in the OECD database.

(Note that the U.S. and Mexico lines are in red, different from the blue lines, whose countries have some form of universal health insurance.)

Good value-for-money is achieved, according to the chart, in Spain, Japan, New Zealand, and Australia, among others, whose lines have increasing slopes in the chart.

Health Populi’s Hot Points: As a longtime fan of Edward Tufte‘s elegant approach to graphical communication, this chart speaks volumes. It’s a fine example of how to tell a complex story in a simple way that generates that lightbulb moment for the viewer.


Another masterful interpretation of these OECD data was constructed by John Peltier of Peltier Technical Services.

Here, John has included additional OECD countries. See the U.S. as outlier on the right side of the bubble chart.

There are critics of OECD health data who claim that using purchasing power parity to translate health cost numbers isn’t really fair — that in doing so, the OECD isn’t comparing apples to apples. Other critics of the data contend that the U.S. stats include more comprehensive line items and that other countries’ data aren’t as complete or “fully loaded.”

Even with some tweaking, though, the U.S. remains a low-value achieving nation when it comes to health spending. This argument was well-documented by The Commonwealth Fund in its work on how the U.S. can achieve a high performance health system. Uwe Reinhardt, et. al., have also shed light on the fact that for U.S. health care, “It’s the prices, stupid.”

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