Harary: Learning From Sweden

by Paul Harary | 8/6/15 7:51pm

Dartmouth’s strong outdoor culture — reflected in the enduring tradition of the Dartmouth Outing Club, high level of environmental awareness and campus-wide enthusiasm for natural sports — is often cited as one of its biggest draws. The opportunity to spend a day enjoying the New Hampshire wilderness — whether it be a day on the slopes at the Dartmouth Skiway or a weekend trip to Moosilauke Lodge — frequently proves to be the perfect antidote to a taxing week.

Nowhere else is this appreciation for nature better encapsulated than in the Swedish custom of Allemansrätten — or The Right of Public Access. This gives Swedes the freedom to hike, canoe, ski, camp and forage on land throughout the country — both public and private — so long as their recreation does not cause any damage. As a matter of fact, this right is considered so important that it is included in their constitution. Of course, this practice is made more feasible by the country’s relatively low population density and large stretches of undeveloped land. It would certainly face more obstacles in the United States. There are, however, many other things that Sweden has gotten right from which we can learn .

The most obvious of these is Sweden’s policy of providing free universal health care. This includes regular checkups, immunizations, illness care, hospitalization and dental work — all without the requirement for co-pay. More impressively, this is done while maintaining a healthcare system that is consistently ranked as one of the best in the world. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development — widely regarded as the most comprehensive source of statistics on the health systems of developed countries — Sweden boasts top marks in all major categories of care and spending. By comparison, the US has a higher total expenditure, higher per capita cost (nearly twice that of Sweden), higher expenditure as a share of GDP, and — to top it all off — provides much lower quality care. This is evidenced by the fact that Sweden averages a higher average life expectancy, an infant mortality rate that is less than half that in the U.S., and fewer potential years of life lost.

Opponents of universal healthcare often claim that adopting this type of system would prove enormously expensive for the American taxpayer. Sweden actually maintains lower per capita public spending on health than the U.S. — and, of course, public outlay accounts for less than half of American health care costs.

In addition, universal coverage provides a valuable intangible — peace of mind. Over 40 million Americans remain uninsured, at risk of paying overwhelming out-of-pocket costs should they be injured or fall ill. In contrast, Swedes do not have this threat constantly looming over their heads and never have to make choices between going in for treatment or paying off home loans or a new car. In turn, this results in fewer unnecessary emergency room visits — sometimes the only option for uninsured Americans — and contributes to increased hospital efficiency.

It is easy to see how the Swedish approach translates into a higher quality of living. Sweden has been consistently placed in the top 10 happiest countries by the World Happiness Report. The U.S. has never managed to break into the top 14, despite being 10th in GDP per capita, compared to Sweden at 17th. Again, we see the pattern of Sweden doing much more with less.

At the end of the day, it is unjustifiable that citizens of an economic superpower such as the US — with its expansive medical infrastructure and world-leading research and development — continue to pay more than double for their health services compared to small countries such as Sweden, leaving millions without access to care. Despite the abundance of statistics providing evidence to the contrary, politicians and pundits continue to peddle the idea that universal coverage would be more expensive for the American taxpayer and that such a system is only suitable for socialist Europe. This is not surprising — there are many groups that profit enormously from the complications and inefficiencies of the status quo — the deductibles, coverage limits, copays and dysfunctional interplay between private insurance and government-owned hospitals. A complete overhaul of the American health care system is far past due. How much longer can we persist in spending more than anyone else, yet have so much less to show for it?