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Forbes: U.S. still most-innovative country in biomedicine

One year ago today, the federal health-care bill - the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to some, ObamaCare to others - was signed into law after a season of acrimonious debate. That bill's rush to narrow passage on a strictly partisan Congressional vote most likely was the primary cause of last November's historic election rout.

Without question, the intentions of many who pressed for the overhaul were angelic. Their major motivating assumption: This country's health-care system is broken. Life expectancy, infant mortality, cost - by all these measures, it was argued, a health-care buck in the United States buys not a bang but a whisper. Other countries do it better, and cheaper.

"Cheaper," maybe. With a wife from Canada and a daughter studying in France, I could offer plenty of anecdotes contradicting the "better" assessment: ridiculously long wait times for ultra-short face-time with a real doctor, downright faulty diagnostic procedures - followed, accordingly, by jaw-droppingly dumb diagnoses - and arcane or antiquated prescriptions. (Homeopathy, anyone?!)

But why listen to me? For every story I can tell you about the warty faces of foreign health-care systems, there are lots of people who can provide anecdotes of their own to the contrary. So let's go to the data.

Almost a year and a half ago I cited studies indicating that, measured by survival rates for people diagnosed with cancer and heart disease, longevity (discounting accidents and homicides, which are arguably unrelated to health-care quality), or several other criteria, the U.S. occupies a top rung.

Last April I posted another entry noting that the editor-in-chief of a 2002 WHO report, which gave the United States health-care system a lousy #37 global ranking, was now lambasting those rankings as "meaningless."

And a few months ago, I blogged about a Rand Corporation study ranking the U.S. above the United Kingdom in health care for seniors.

Today, we learn of America's lead in the lab as well as the clinic. Crack Forbes medical reporter Matthew Herper rolls out chart upon graph to justify his assertion that among "The Most Innovative Countries in Biology and Medicine" (his title), the United States is number one.

Some 40% of all articles published in biomedical research in 2009 came from the United States, with no sign of its being usurped any time soon. Nor is this quantity without quality: The U.S. was among the leaders in the number of times an average paper was referenced by other scientific papers. And Herper notes that the U.S. continues to be the major magnet for big drug companies' research operations.

"There may be threats to America's position in biomedicine, but at best they are hoof beats in the distance, not imminent dangers," he writes.

Yes, the U.S. health-care system has its warts. And it's expensive. But it's also the most innovative and, for those who can get it, the most effective. Here's a prescription for keeping it that way: If it's not all that broke to begin with, please be really, really careful how you fix it.

Previously: Rand Corp. study says U.S. health care for elderly superior to UK's, U.S. health system's sketchy WHO rating is bogus, says horse's mouth and Rush to judgment regarding the state of U.S. health care?

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