Health care refers to a wide range of services and products aimed at maintaining or improving human health. The field includes not only medical and dental services, but also allied health professions, such as physiotherapists and psychologists; residential and community healthcare facilities; laboratory diagnostic services; and medical equipment and supplies. Health care is the second largest industry worldwide and is characterized by both a high level of complexity and wide variation in practice. Many different models of financing health care exist, including socialized medicine, private insurance, employer-based insurance and government single-payer systems.
The term is used in a variety of ways and often in conjunction with other terms, such as the health economy, the health sector and the health care system. The broadest definition is that of the larger system or business of achieving and maintaining healthy life, which encompasses not only direct clinical care but the economic and political structures that support it.
While a wide variety of models exist, most developed countries have some form of universal health coverage. Generally, these are either national or regional systems that provide a broad spectrum of medical and dental services. In general, these systems are publicly funded through taxes and other sources of revenue, such as user fees or premiums. In addition, most developed countries have some form of private insurance, which is typically provided through employers or purchased from private companies.
A large and growing percentage of the world’s population now has access to health care through one of these models, and there is considerable debate about what constitutes a good or bad system. There are numerous issues that come into play, ranging from the extent to which the system should be focused on prevention and wellness (and how that might be measured), to what measures of equity or efficiency should be applied to the health care sector as a whole.
There are also disagreements about the extent to which free market principles can or should be applied to the health care sector. Some people believe that individuals have a right to health care and that the best way to ensure availability of health care is through a market system in which each person independently chooses a caregiver for themselves and pays them directly, bypassing third parties such as insurers.
Others argue that the free market has failed health care, and that health care must be organized and delivered in a manner consistent with government-directed principles such as those of socialized medicine or single-payer government-financed systems. The debate over these issues should refocus attention on the problem of providing health care to millions of Americans who remain uninsured. There is a clear need to find viable alternatives that are financially sustainable and can meet the needs of a diverse population with varying interests, preferences, abilities, and incomes. These alternatives should be evaluated on the basis of cost-benefit and other criteria. The results of these evaluations should inform the design and evaluation of policy initiatives.