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The Op-Ed No One Wanted

Canada’s corpse-strewn landscape?
September 2, 2009

By now, how many Americans haven’t heard of death panels, and the Big Bad Government interfering with end-of-life decisions that would send granny to the gallows? And who doesn’t know about Canada’s “socialized” medicine where people are dying on the streets because that country “rations” care? To paraphrase Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert, imagine all those corpses strewn across the Canadian tundra. But granny actually lives longer in Canada than in the U.S., according to some interesting stats put together by Rutgers research professor Louise Russell, who is familiar to Campaign Desk readers for revealing how, contrary to popular belief, preventive care does not save money.

In an op-ed which was turned down by every newspaper to which it was submitted–The New York Times, USA Today, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Los Angeles Times–Russell looked at different age groups among the elderly populations in both countries, and found that death rates for the elderly are lower in Canada than in the U.S. Russell broke down different age groups among the elderly and examined the number of deaths per thousand among people between the ages of sixty-five and sixty-nine; seventy and seventy-four; seventy-five and seventy-nine; eighty and eighty-four. In each of those groups, the death rates per thousand were lower in Canada than in America.

For instance, among people age seventy to seventy-four there were twenty-six deaths per 1000 people in the U.S. compared to twenty-one per 1000 in Canada. Between age eighty and eighty-four, Russell found sixty-five American deaths per 1000 compared to fifty-nine deaths per 1000 Canadians. For people eighty-five and older, rates were virtually the same. Everyone eventually dies.

Her analysis is important for journalists and the public because she effectively challenges a wild claim by the wildly popular Bill O’Reilly. Last month, on the O’Reilly Factor, a Canadian letter writer named Peter asked: “Has anyone noted that life expectancy in Canada under our health system is higher than the USA?” To which O’Reilly simply replied: “Well, Peter, that’s to be expected. We have ten times as many people as you do.” That kind of statistical nonsense would surprise the heck out of any researcher or health and medical reporter worth his or her salt.

Precisely because differences in population size exist, researchers interpret numbers using a level playing field to make meaningful, apples-to-apples comparisons. One way to do that is to calculate rates of death, or anything else, using a standard base such as per 100 people—or, as in Russell’s analysis, per 1000 people. Without such a uniform basis of comparison, the numbers don’t mean very much, except as fodder for outlandish and misleading statements like the one O’Reilly made.

Newspaper editorial editors are, of course, deluged with all kinds of worthy op-eds, and these days have little space to accommodate all that deserve to be published. But we thought Russell’s analysis was worth passing along—not only to help reporters challenge such claims as O’Reilly’s, but also to help his viewers understand that, yes, Canadians do live longer than Americans, for a variety of reasons. These include not only the country’s medical insurance system, but what are known as the social determinants of health—poverty, workplace stress, where people live, and so on.

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For the record, Russell consulted the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook and found that 2009 estimates indicate that all Canadians are expected to live 81.2 years on average, compared to 78.1 years for Americans—a three-year advantage in the land of strewn corpses and “socialized” medicine.

Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for CJR's Covering the Health Care Fight. She also blogs for Health News Review and the Center for Health Journalism. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.