Don't Trust Cuban Health Care Statistics
We've long been told that Cuba's health care system is one of the greatest in the world. In spite of the fact that health usually correlates with wealth in national statistics, we're assured that Cuba's obvious poverty is offset, at least in part, by amazingly low infant mortality rates and life expectancy.
But in a new short article for the journal Health Policy and Planning, Gilbert Berdine, Vincent Geloso, and Benjamin Powell examine some of the ways that the data is being manipulated in Cuba to ensure better-looking health statistics.
For example, on the matter of infant mortality, doctors have been known to redefine dead infants as dead fetuses:
[There is] evidence that physicians likely reclassified early neonatal deaths as late fetal deaths, thus deflating the infant mortality statistics and propping up life expectancy. Cuban doctors were re-categorizing neonatal deaths as late fetal deaths in order for doctors to meet government targets for infant mortality.
Abortions of babies in utero who might die soon after birth is a tactic as well:
Physicians often perform abortions without clear consent of the mother, raising serious issues of medical ethics, when ultrasound reveals fetal abnormalities because ‘otherwise it might raise the infant mortality rate.’ ... At 72.8 abortions per 100 births, Cuba has one of the highest abortion rates in the world.
The focus on infant mortality may have led to increases in other types of mortality:
[T]hese outcomes come at cost to other population segments. The maternal mortality ratio of Cuba in 2015 was higher than in Latin American countries like Barbados, Belize, Chile, Costa Rica, Mexico and Uruguay ( Trends in Maternal Mortality 1990 to 2015, 2015). In terms of healthy life expectancy, Cuba ranked behind Costa Rica, Chile, Peru and Bermuda and marginally surpassed Uruguay, Puerto Rica, Panama, Nicaragua and Colombia
Some factors that have led to a more fit population have nothing at all to do with health care delivery:
[C]ar ownership is heavily restricted in Cuba and as a result the country’s car ownership rate is far below the Latin American average (55.8 per 1000 persons as opposed to 267 per 1000) (Road Safety, 2016). A low rate of automobile ownership results in little traffic congestion and few auto fatalities. In Brazil, where the car ownership rate is 7.3 times above that of Cuba, road fatalities reduce male and female life expectancy at birth by 0.8 and 0.2 years
Forced exercise helps:
[Another factor includes] forcing the population to increase their reliance on more physically demanding forms of transportation (e.g. cycling and walking) (Borowy, 2013). In fact, local physicians attribute a strong role to the massive introduction of bicycles in order to explain the decrease in traffic accidents mortality
So does making the population go hungry:
During the ‘Special Period’ (the prolonged economic crisis caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union), there were ‘sustained shortages in the food-rationing system’ that led to reductions in per capita daily energy intake (Franco et al. 2007). Combined with the increase in the levels of energy expenditures due to the reliance on physically demanding forms of transportation, this led to a reduction in net nutrition...this crisis led to the halving of obesity rates and, although one has to be careful in causal terms, this likely contributed to important reductions of deaths attributed to diabetes, coronary heart diseases and strokes (there were also increases in the number of cases of neuropathy).
As Berdine, et al point out, a key factor here is the unseen opportunity cost of mandating that more and more resrouces be directed toward health care at the expense of other sectors of the economy. Cuban central planners have decided that large amounts of national income be devoted to health care so as to improve (some) national indicators on health. But, given the choice, would Cubans choose to devote so much to health care?
Many advocates for government-directed health spending like to claim that health and longevity are the most important factors. But ordinary human behavior makes it clear this is not actually true. People routinely spend money on non-essentials like non-basic automobiles, large houses, and costly vacations when they could save that money for medical emergencies. Even in countries with so-called socialized medicine often have options for private supplemental health insurance — which would expand and improve quality of care for the purchaser. And yet few elect to use this option. Clearly, living as long as possible is only one value balanced against many others.
In light of this, can we conclude the Cuban government is hitting the "correct" amount of health care spending? Since each person's value ranking differs, this is obviously impossible.
Nevertheless, the Cuban healthcare system is clearly geared toward hitting certain goals arbitrarily set by government officials. This can lead to abuse, of course, and also to unreliable data.