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Lecture on Swedish Health Care Emphasizes Need for Change in America

By Nina Zimmerman

While the debates over health care policy rage on in Washington, D.C., some of the issues posed by legislators were brought to Kenyon on Monday night, Feb. 28. The Center for American Democracy and the Department of Sociology joined forces to sponsor guest lecturer Dr. Bo Jordin, M.D., who brought his wealth of worldly experience to Peirce Lounge to deliver a speech entitled “Excellence in Health Care Quality and Efficiency: Are There Lessons for the U.S. from Sweden?” In sharing his interesting experiences involving both the Swedish and American health care systems, Jordin successfully brought another perspective on the American health care crisis to campus.

Jordin set the stage by elaborating on basic facts about Sweden. He said that while Sweden is roughly the size of the west coast of the United States, it only has a population of nine million people, which is slightly more than the population of New York City. He then explained the Swedish system of government, which differs greatly from the system in place here. Sweden’s Parliament breaks down into the Government Cabinet, which is then further divided into ministries. These ministries are subdivided into government agencies, such as the National Board of Health and Welfare, for which Jordin served as director of primary care from 1992 to 2004.

The lecture featured a series of intriguing comparisons between the U.S. and Sweden, facts that were particularly striking in light of the rising temperature of the debates bouncing around the floor of the Capitol. Some of the information was reminiscent of an expos on the faults of the American health care system and further emphasized the fact that we are the only wealthy, industrial nation that does not insure all of its citizens.

When Sweden joined the European Union in 1995, the country was forced to remodel their system and make unofficial agreements into official laws, resulting in new legislation and guidelines for the monitoring and supervision of health care. Everyone in Sweden is enrolled in the health care system, while it is estimated that around 15 percent of the American population is uninsured.

In Sweden, 25 percent of the health care system is financed by the national government, and on the regional and local levels, income taxes help offset the cost of more generalized health services. Americans pay nearly twice as much for our lower-quality health coverage than Swedes do. This is also true when comparing the U.S. with the rest of Western Europe, including France, the United Kingdom and Italy. While Americans visit the doctor an average of six times per year, Swedes go half as often, partially due to the fact that their regular doctor visits last longer than ours do. This means more illness prevention, resulting in the need for fewer visits. Sweden also has more doctors and more medical students per capita than the U.S.

Our health follies turned into inspiration for the Swedes. The rising rate of obesity in America caused Sweden to become much more proactive about the issue, leading to the creation of widespread information campaigns in schools, among other things. The result speaks for itself. While 30 percent of the U.S. population is obese, the figure is only 10 percent in Sweden.

Jordin also emphatically pointed out that it is impossible for people in this country to avoid paying for their health care. Despite the fact that many Americans believe they do not pay for their health insurance because it appears that their employer covers the costs, in fact, whatever money the employer uses to pay for medical expenses comes directly from the employee’s paycheck. We do pay for health care, whether we realize it or not.

As the lecture continued, it became clear that the issue of health care is one about which Kenyon students care deeply. Nearly every seat in Peirce Lounge was filled by an avidly-listening student, and when it came time for questions there were many, including ones covering the topics of the challenges health care poses for countries and the impact of pharmaceutical lobbyists on the system as a whole.

The lecture’s relevance to the Kenyon community was further reinforced by the fact that some members of the Knox County community face the kind of dire health care situation that the Obama administration is trying very hard to correct. Though Jordin explicitly said that the situations in the U.S. and Sweden are incredibly different, the answer to the question posed by the lecture, “Are there lessons for the U.S. from Sweden?” is clearly a resounding yes. The bottom line is that the health care system in our country is utterly disastrous and needs to be rectified before our standard of living gets even worse. Americans need to be educated, not only in how to better take care of ourselves but also on how our own health care system works and how we can improve it to make the quality of our health care system match that of our global, or more specifically European, competitors.

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