What is a Preventable Death?

0 Posted by - September 19, 2013 - PREVENTION

In 2000, the World Health Organization ranked the US health care system 37th in the world.  This report was met with much skepticism and controversy.  Critics argued that too much emphasis was placed on literacy and the life-expectancy rate and that international comparison is not useful because of the unique nature of the US healthcare system.  However, it is harder to disregard our potentially preventable death rate.  Preventable deaths are a measure of deaths before age 75 that could have potentially been prevented by timely access to appropriate health care.  In a study released by the Commonwealth Fund in 2012, the US lagged behind France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, and our pace of improvement was much slower.

In American men and women under 65, the discrepancy was most pronounced.In 2007, the potentially preventable death rate among U.S. men under age 65 was 69 per 100,000 deaths, considerably higher than in the U.K. (53/100,000), and France (37/100,000). Death rates for men in this age group have declined more rapidly in all three countries since 1999 than in the United States. Between 1999 and 2006/2007, the overall potentially preventable death rate among men dropped by only 18.5% in the US, while the rate declined by nearly 37% in the U.K. 

In the United States in 2005, tobacco smoking and high blood pressure, when combined, were responsible for 1 in 5 deaths.  Overweight-obesity and a sedentary lifestyle together caused a combined 1 in 10 deaths.  Diet played a significant role on mortality risk in preventable deaths particularly diets high in salt, trans-fats and alcohol, and low in omega-3 fatty acids.  Potentially preventable deaths are a real opportunity for our healthcare system to make huge advances.


In the US, everyone over age 65 has access to healthcare via Medicare.  In contrast to the under-65 population, the U.S. potentially preventable death rates compared relatively well for adults ages 65-74.  However, the rate of decline in preventable deaths in this age group was slower than that in the U.K. and Germany.


Improved access to healthcare is one component.  Improved screening for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and tobacco abuse are simple measures that can saves lives.  Early behavioral modification counseling on healthy diets, engaging in regular exercise and tobacco cessation sounds straight forward but can drive our preventable deaths down toward our Western European counterparts and hopefully surpass their rates in years to come.

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