Image: Medical doctor © Corbis

By virtually any measure, America spends far more on health care than any other country in the world. Yet the outcomes here are not necessarily better.

For example U.S. life expectancy is well below that of Japan, Canada, Israel and most Western European countries, according to the CIA’s World Factbook.

Similarly the U.S. infant mortality rate of 5.9 per 1,000 live births is higher than the rate in dozens of countries including Japan, which has a rate of about 2.2 per 1,000.

With the 2010 Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare, kicking into high gear in October, many consumers are looking more closely than ever at the high cost of health care and the wildly disparate prices charged by different providers for similar treatments.

Click ahead to see more details about our health care costs and how they compare with those elsewhere in the world.


A rising share of GDP

A rising share of GDP

U.S. spending on health care has grown steadily from 4.4% of gross domestic product in 1950 to 17.9% in 2011, and it is expected to keep rising. By 2021, health care could consume $1 of every $5 produced by the entire economy, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The Affordable Care Act of 2010 was motivated by a decades-long concern about the rising cost of health care, but it is far from clear whether the law will do much to stem the increase. Some experts say the increasing transparency of medical costs could put growing pressure on providers.

Theoretically, reducing the number of uninsured Americans and providing more preventive coverage also could slow the seemingly inexorable rise. But the jury is out, and experts say it will be years before the impact of the law on the cost of health care will be known.

Outspending the world

Outspending the world

On a per-capita basis, Americans spend twice as much on health care as most Western Europeans do, and up to four times as much as residents of some less developed countries do. Yet even less developed countries such as Greece and Jordan boast longer life expectancy than the United States.

A World Health Organization report, published in 2000 then discontinued due to complexity, ranked the United States No. 37 out of 191 countries assessed for overall quality of their health care systems.

Critics say any such comparisons are biased and that all countries wrestle with the cost of increasingly complex medical treatments and procedures.

A puzzling price model

A puzzling price model

Many eyes have been opened recently by government data highlighting the incredible disparity of pricing charged by different providers for similar medical treatments and procedures.

NerdWallet has built a Web tool that allows consumer to compare the average cost of a procedure at providers in various locations.

For example, the hospital charge for a typical knee replacement in the Cleveland area ranges from an average $15,465 at an orthopedic center in Akron, Ohio, to more than $50,000 at the renowned Cleveland Clinic. The service, powered by government data, can be a useful tool for consumers, especially in the case of elective procedures.

The disparity is even greater when prices are compared with markets overseas. For example, a New York Times story in June focused on colonoscopies, which typically cost insurers more than $3,500 in the United States, compared with much less than $1,000 in many developed countries.

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