There's nothing particularly wrong with spending a lot of money on something important, as long as you get a decent return for what you spend. It's certainly not wasteful to spend money for effective medical treatment. If a dentist who was about to drill a tooth offered her patient a choice between listening to pleasant music for free to lessen the pain, or a shot of Novocain for $50, most people would pay for the shot and would probably get their money's worth. And there's nothing wrong with paying more for better performance. Those fifty-two-inch high-definition plasma televisions that people hang on the family room wall these days cost five times what a top-of-the-line set would have cost ten years ago, but buyers are willing to shell out the extra money because the enhanced viewing quality is worth the price.
When it comes to medical care, though, Americans are shelling out the big bucks without getting what we pay for. As we'll see shortly, the quality of medical care that Americans buy is often inferior to the treatment people get in other countries. And patients know it. Surveys show that Americans who see a doctor tend to be less satisfied with their treatment than Britons, Italians, Germans, Canadians, or the Japanese— even though we pay the doctor much more than they do.
You don't need an advanced degree in yajnopathy to recognize that the stars are aligned and the timing is propitious for the United States to establish a new national health care system. As Americans voted in the 2008 election, only 18 percent told the pollsters that the U.S. health care system was working well. Even American doctors, who generally do just fine, thank you, in financial terms, are unhappy with the ridiculously cumbersome and unjust system that has built up around them. And those Americans who want change in our system— which is to say, almost all Americans—are not willing to settle for minor tinkering or small-scale adjustments. Rather, 79 percent told the pollsters they want to see either "fundamental changes" or "a complete overhaul."
The thesis of this book is that we can bring about fundamental change by borrowing ideas from foreign models of health care. For me, that conclusion stems from personal experience. I've worked overseas for years as a foreign correspondent; our family has lived on three continents, and we've used the health care systems in other wealthy countries with satisfaction. But many Americans intensely dislike the idea that we might learn useful policy ideas from other countries, particularly in medicine. The leaders of the health care industry and the medical profession, not to mention the political establishment, have a single, all-purpose response they fall back on whenever somebody suggests that the United States might usefully study foreign health care systems: "But it's socialized medicine!"