As city-wide quarantines become more commonplace, governments are encouraging their citizens to return home, especially from nations with shaky healthcare systems. According to Norway, that includes the U.S.
This week, a renowned Norwegian college urged its students studying abroad to return immediately. They didn’t want their students to be stuck in a “poorly developed” country. Norway’s University of Science and Technology pointed specifically to the U.S. as having “poorly developed health services” and “poorly developed collective infrastructure.”
While many laughed at the nation’s roast of the U.S., the coronavirus pandemic will set the stage for a battle of healthcare systems. Politics in the U.S. have debated the merits of a government-controlled healthcare system for years, but the coronavirus pandemic could finally settle the debate.
In the U.K., where the government-run National Healthcare Service is gearing up for an influx of patients, self-quarantine has been the advice from government officials. Prime Minister Borris Johnson has been heavily criticized for his approach to abandon excessive testing and focus resources on at-risk populations instead. Johnson’s strategy means the U.K.’s confirmed cases and death-rate are unreliable. It might also mean the NHS is better able to cope with the rising number of critical cases.
Americans have watched overwhelmed government-run healthcare systems, like Italy’s, crumble under the stress of coronavirus. But America may find itself in a far worse predicament. Italy’s hospitals are more prepared than those in the U.S. Data from the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development shows that Italy has 3.2 hospital beds available for every 1,000 inhabitants. The U.S. has just 2.8, and many of those are already occupied.
U.S. hospitals are in the business of healthcare. They don’t sit around with open beds and unused equipment in case of a crisis. That wouldn’t be profitable. The reality of a severe coronavirus outbreak could be much worse than those numbers suggest. This weekend New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said the city’s intensive care units were already 80% occupied.
Based on the data compiled by the OECD, U.S. hospitals rank firmly in the bottom half according to facilities available to inhabitants.
Back in February, before quarantines and curve flattening were everyday conversation, Johns Hopkins estimated that U.S. hospitals had 62,000 fully-functional ventilators. In a pinch, the study predicted that the U.S. could add an additional 98,000 to that count. That’s enough to handle a moderate outbreak according to government estimates. But, if the coronavirus outbreak reaches severe levels, 742,500 ventilators would be necessary.
The same logic applies to a host of other medical supplies—including medical professionals trained to use the ventilators. The Johns Hopkins study noted that in the event of a crisis, we would likely run out of people who could operate the ventilators before we’d run out of devices.
In Italy, the grim reality of rationing care has started to play out as the medical community works to save as many people as possible. Unfortunately, the numbers suggest a similar scenario could potentially unfold in America.
Not only is the healthcare system in America underprepared, but the number of uninsured people, coupled with exorbitant out-of-pocket costs to access care, will probably discourage many from seeking care. People with symptoms are hesitant to visit the doctor because of the costs. Studies show that even when faced with life-threatening illnesses, a third of Americans put-off their care because they can’t afford it.
Although Americans may be shocked to see that Norway considers U.S. healthcare to be “poorly developed,” simple math and logic show that they’re right. They just picked a horrible time to find out.