Will America Keep “Bending the Productivity Curve”?

Most international comparisons conclude that America’s health care sector under-performs those of other advanced nations.  Aside from other serious flaws, those studies typically ignore each nation’s contribution to medical innovation – the discovery of new knowledge and practices that improve health in all nations. Today, the Cato Institute releases a new study – the most comprehensive study of its kind – that helps fill that void.

In “Bending the Productivity Curve: Why America Leads the World in Medical Innovation,” economist Glen Whitman and physician Raymond Raad conclude that the United States far and away outperforms other nations on medical innovation, but that the legislation moving through Congress threatens America’s ability to innovate.  From the executive summary:

To date…none of the most influential international comparisons have examined the contributions of various countries to the many advances that have improved the productivity of medicine over time…

In three of the four general categories of innovation examined in this paper — basic science, diagnostics, and therapeutics — the United States has contributed more than any other country…In the last category, business models, we lack the data to say whether the United States has been more or less innovative than other nations; innovation in this area appears weak across nations.

In general, Americans tend to receive more new treatments and pay more for them — a fact that is usually regarded as a fault of the American system. That interpretation, if not entirely wrong, is at least incomplete. Rapid adoption and extensive use of new treatments and technologies create an incentive to develop those techniques in the first place. When the United States subsidizes medical innovation, the whole world benefits. That is a virtue of the American system that is not reflected in comparative life expectancy and mortality statistics.

Policymakers should consider the impact of reform proposals on innovation. For example, proposals that increase spending on diagnostics and therapeutics could encourage such innovation. Expanding price controls, government health care programs, and health insurance regulation, on the other hand, could hinder America’s ability to innovate.

Raad will discuss the study this Friday at noon at a policy forum at the Cato Institute.