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How Broken Is The U.S. Health Care System? Let's Count The Ways

Just about everybody who's ever needed health care in this country has seen firsthand the problems that make our system inefficient, costly and often downright unsatisfying.

The nonpartisan Institute of Medicine just put out a 450-page report about the problems along with some ideas for improvements.

How bad are things? Well, nearly a third of spending on health care — or about $750 billion in 2009 — is wasted. There's lots of inefficiency, excess overhead and some outright fraud, too. But the biggest slice, as you can see in a chart from The Atlantic's Brian Fung, is unnecessary care — about 28 percent of the waste pie.

Money's not the only issue. Poor quality hurts patients. The report, called "Best Care at Lower Cost: The Path to Continuously Learning Health Care in America," says that about 75,000 deaths a year might be prevented if the type of medicine practiced in the best states was the standard nationwide.

The numbers and technical details in the report could really glaze your eyes in a hurry. So it was nice to see a passage in the introduction that boils down the problems into some analogies. I've boiled them down some more and offer them up to you for a vote. Which one does the best job of conveying the routine screw-ups in health care?

Now it's true the report offers some suggestions for improving our system of care. Better use of technology, such as widespread adoption of computerized medical records and mobile devices, would help a lot, it says.

Besides the analogies in the report, the IOM also put together a handy infographic that summarizes the problems and ideas for fixing them. Click on the excerpt below to see the whole thing.

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Scott Hensley edits stories about health, biomedical research and pharmaceuticals for NPR's Science desk. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he has led the desk's reporting on the development of vaccines against the coronavirus.
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