The USA will need to learn from European healthcare systems, though many stakeholders may not fancy the idea, say management consultants AT Kearney.

The group made the comments based on its recent study looking at the sustainability of world healthcare systems, which described the reasons why the USA, “and indeed all developed countries, will be forced to consider radical transformation of their healthcare systems”. It also predicts that these changes would be traumatic, and that the structure of the US healthcare system would make it particularly difficult to reform.

AT Kearney noted that President Obama’s proposed reforms “have indeed ignited furious debate within the USA, a debate characterised by often wild and politically motivated assertions”. It adds that the UK’s National Health Service “has been cast by conservative Republicans as the ‘bogeyman’ of socialised medicine, noting that it was described by ex-vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin as “evil”.

However, the management consultant argues that the current debate “risks trivialising a far more fundamental crisis in healthcare funding. Growth in US health spending is unsustainable, and its relative performance is declining”.

The report notes that the NHS “is far from the only model from which the USA might learn”, and there are European, insurance-based systems “that deliver far better outcomes than the US system at a much lower cost”.

AT Kearney goes on to say that US health reform “is a critical issue for the entire world”, because, despite having 5% of the global population, it accounts for 45% of total healthcare spend, “and its system increasingly underperforms those of other developed countries”. Any reforms will have significant impact on other sectors, most notably the pharmaceutical industry, it adds.

Europe too has its problems, the report states, as it is “ageing at an alarming rate due to declining birth rates and longer life expectancy”. European healthcare systems were largely developed in the 1940s and 1950s when each person of retirement age was supported by six to seven people of working age. By 2020, more than 20% of the population will be over 65, making the ratio closer to 1:3.

Despite differences, AT Kearney predicts that “a common health care model will emerge that all will gravitate towards”. Many healthcare stakeholders “will find this transition deeply traumatic, and none more so than the USA”.

Many of the cost control mechanisms in common use in European ‘socialised medicine’ systems “will inevitably need to be adopted” across the Atlantic, says AT Kearney. On the other side, systems such as the NHS will need to balance health economics and political realities in the allocation of spending, and consider “the relative role of the state and the individual”.

The consultants conclude by saying that these are “all extremely difficult issues for Governments to address, and in many instances will spark outrage, as the public debates health issues that can rarely be viewed rationally”. However, they will need to “recognise, prepare for and ultimately resolve these challenges with the population”.