July 9, 2018

Americans are closely divided over value of medical treatments, but most agree costs are a big problem

Christian Hinrichs, an investigator specializing in HPV+ cancers at the National Cancer Institute, shows patient Fred Janick, a metastatic cancer survivor, a CT scan showing his cancerous tumors, right, and a clean scan after treatment in February. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Americans have mixed assessments about the overall value of medical treatments today, even while a strong majority says science has generally improved the quality of U.S. health care, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. At the same time, a substantial majority considers quality health care unaffordable.

Americans are closely divided over the value of medical treatments todayOverall, 48% of U.S. adults say medical treatments are “worth the costs because they allow people to live longer and better quality lives,” while a similar share (51%) says such treatments “often create as many problems as they solve.”

The survey also finds that 90% of Americans believe science has had a mostly positive effect on the quality of health care. This is in keeping with a 2016 Pew Research Center report, which found that, among the 67% of Americans who said science has had a mostly positive effect on society, the largest share (59%), in an open-ended question, cited science’s effect on medicine and health as the main reason.

Most Americans say the high costs of medical treatments are a big problemWhile Americans are closely divided in their views of the overall value of medical treatments, a majority of Americans (83%), regardless of their income, say a big problem is that the high cost of medical treatments makes quality care unaffordable. Just 14% say cost is a small problem and 3% say it is not a problem.

Roughly seven-in-ten (68%) say it is a big problem that “people rely too much on prescription medicines that may not be necessary.” Some 59% say a big problem is that the side effects of prescription medicines create as many problems as they solve.

About half of Americans (49%) say the slow pace in evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medical treatments is a big problem. Some 46% say a big problem is that health care providers are too quick to order potentially unnecessary tests and procedures, 44% cite new treatments being made available before we fully understand their effects and 42% say new treatments are so complex that patients cannot make informed decisions.

As Americans assess potential problems with health care, most demographic and political groups are closely divided over whether medical treatments are worth the costs because they allow people to live longer and better quality lives, or whether medical treatments often create as many problems as they solve.

For instance, roughly equal shares of Republicans and Democrats (47% and 50%, respectively, including independents who lean toward each party) say that medical treatments these days are worth the cost because they allow longer, better quality lives.

But upper-income Americans are more likely than lower-income Americans to say medical treatments are “worth the costs.” A 62% majority of those with family incomes of at least $100,000 per year say medical treatments are worth the costs. Among those with annual family incomes of less than $30,000, 57% say medical treatments “create as many problems as they solve.”

The findings come amid ongoing policy debates about how to ensure access to quality health care, medications and new treatments for those with cancer and other serious diseases.

Despite political divides over government policies on health insurance, Democrats and Republicans largely agree about which aspects of medical treatments are the most problematic. For instance, about eight-in-ten (81%) Republicans and independents who lean toward the GOP consider the cost of quality medical care to be a big problem, as do 85% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents.

Views on whether the cost of medical treatments is a big problem also tend to be similar across age, race and ethnicity, family income and education groups. But on some of the other possible problems with medical treatments, there are differences. For example, 55% of those with incomes below $30,000 say it is a big problem that new treatments are made available before we fully understand how they affect people’s health, compared with 27% of those with incomes of at least $100,000 who say the same. Larger shares of blacks (57%) and Hispanics (60%) than whites (38%) say this is a big problem. Also, half of women (50%) say it is a big problem that new treatments are made available before we fully understand how they affect people’s health, compared with 38% of men who say the same.

Note: See topline results and methodology here.

Topics: Health, Science and Innovation, Health Care

  1. is an intern at Pew Research Center.

  2. is a writer/editor focusing on science and society at Pew Research Center.