Health care is the system of organizations, people and resources that deliver medical and public health services to promote, maintain and restore physical and mental health. It includes a wide range of activities from treating disease to preventing accidents and providing health education. This sector includes hospitals, private practices, community health centers, pharmacies, laboratory services and many other businesses. It is the fourth largest industry in terms of expenditures, and it contributes significantly to the economy.
The world’s nations differ in the extent to which they provide health care and in the structure of their systems. Most countries have a mix of private and government-run providers. In the United States, for example, most healthcare providers work in private, for-profit businesses and are paid through third party payment sources such as insurance companies or employers. The US also has a significant percentage of its healthcare provided by the government through Medicare and Medicaid.
Some countries have a single-payer system, in which the government pays for all or most of the nation’s health care costs. Other countries have a mixed, private/public system, in which the government pays for some health care and citizens are responsible for paying for the rest out of their own pockets. Still others have a fully private system in which most or all of the nation’s healthcare is provided by privately owned businesses.
Many factors limit access to healthcare, including the availability of particular health care services and their affordability, the geographic distribution of those services, the ability to acquire or use needed health care resources and the ability to communicate information about the availability and costs of healthcare. In addition, the cost of health care has risen in most countries as the result of advances in technology and increased demand for services as a result of population growth and aging, improved treatment options and lifestyle changes such as more sedentary lifestyles.
There are several categories of quality in health care: effectiveness, efficiency, equity and patient centeredness. Effectiveness relates to whether the care provided is appropriate for the patients’ needs, preferences and values. Efficiency relates to how much the care delivered is worth for the money spent. Equity relates to the fairness of the allocation of resources among the various groups in the population. Patient centeredness relates to whether the care provided is patient-centered, taking into account the patients’ perspective and ensuring their involvement in decision making.
A major function of health care is to reduce the financial burdens of illness or accident on individuals and families by reducing the likelihood that they will be forced into bankruptcy by astronomical medical bills. In the US, it is estimated that a lack of insurance leads to an average of 18,000 deaths per year. Health insurance makes healthcare affordable and accessible, which increases life expectancy and enhances quality of life. It is a moral imperative. However, free market principles have not failed in the case of healthcare – it’s just that healthcare has been prohibited by governments and other third parties from naturally embracing the efficiency and fairness of the free market.