A Comparison of the US and French Healthcare Systems

If life in 2020 has taught us anything, it’s how vitally important health is, how essential our healthcare providers are, and what role our healthcare system plays in promoting our quality of life

If life in 2020 has taught us anything, it’s how vitally important health is, how essential our healthcare providers are, and what role our healthcare system plays in promoting our quality of life. In recent years in the US, the debate over “socialized” medicine has only grown.

And yet the French healthcare system, often uncritically lumped under the umbrella of “socialized” medicine is, in fact, one of the most highly ranked national healthcare systems in the world. The US healthcare system, on the other hand, does not fare nearly as well.

But how do the French and US healthcare systems compare?

“Universal” Coverage?

In the United States, the healthcare system is generally split between the public and the private. Public, or government-based, coverage is typically only for special populations: those with disabilities and those with low incomes may be covered by Medicaid.

Retirees, individuals over the age of 65, and certain persons with disabilities, on the other hand, may be insured through Medicare. However, Medicare coverage itself is not wholly universal, as there is a range of Medicare plans offering an array of coverage options, such as prescription and preventive health services, at free or low cost.

Many of these plans, such as the various Medicare Advantage plans, are designed to fill coverage “gaps” for services not insured through regular Medicare, as well as coverage gaps for middle and higher-income seniors.

For the majority of Americans who are not in these special populations, though, healthcare coverage options are relatively limited. Most who have coverage get it through their employer, but for those who do not have employer-provided coverage, the choices are either to purchase costly individual coverage — or to go without. And that has left nearly 30 million Americans uninsured.

In France, however, healthcare coverage is guaranteed for all citizens, under La Securite Sociale. This has recently been expanded to include coverage for services once considered supplementary, such as prescription eyeglasses, hearing aids, and dentures and dental care.

Significantly, the French system flouts the most common charges leveled against “socialized” medicine, namely long wait times for care and lack of patient and physical choice. French patients usually wait less and enjoy more healthcare options than do fully-insured Americans.

The reason for this is pretty simple: the system effectively integrates the public and the private, rather than putting public and private care into separate silos, as in the US. The system is also far more efficient, with reduced administrative expenditures and government intervention to contain healthcare costs. French healthcare providers generally earn a third of what American doctors and nurses do, but their medical education is free, which goes a long way in offsetting that discrepancy.

Medical Tourism

The overall efficacy of the French healthcare system allows hospitals and care providers to pass those savings on to the patient. And that, combined with state-of-the-art facilities and rigorous medical licensure standards, has made healthcare in France both affordable and superior in quality.

Because of this, France has become a prime destination for medical tourists from around the world. Those facing some of the most complicated and costly procedures, from major surgeries to cancer care, are choosing to seek the expertise of the French to avoid crushing medical debt while receiving premium treatment. The French system is particularly renowned for its cardiac, obstetric, and orthopaedic care, as well as rehabilitative and preventative services.

Prenatal and Postnatal Care

Having a baby is certainly a blessed event, but it’s also a stressful and expensive one. The French, however, are setting new standards for caring for Maman, papa, and bebe alike.

In France, for example, pain control measures for labouring mothers are a given, with epidurals an expected intervention for all vaginal births, whereas in the United States, mothers must request epidurals or other forms of pain control.

Additionally, new parents enjoy significant support from the French healthcare, and social services, systems. This includes generous paternity leave, financial stipends, and parental education.

The latter is especially important for first-time parents, who may not otherwise understand the particular and profound needs of infants, including the simple reality that newborns require special care in helping them maintain safe body temperatures.

Hypothermia is a particular threat to low birthweight and frail infants, who may require nearly round-the-clock kangaroo care, consistent skin-to-skin contact to help infants warm themselves with the body heat of their parent. French parental leave and postnatal education and support facilitate this intensive level of infant care, especially through the home-based services of midwives in the days and weeks and following birth.

New mothers also enjoy specialized postnatal care in the French medical system. For example, many women are offered pelvic rehabilitation treatments in the weeks and months following childbirth to facilitate their physical recovery and reduce the likelihood of potential long-term complication.

The Takeaway

Good health and long life are perhaps the greatest gifts we can hope for ourselves and those we love. And today’s national healthcare systems are helping to make those hopes a reality. However, when it comes to efficiency, affordability, and efficacy, it may well be that the US healthcare system has a thing or two to learn from the French.