(Originally published at EisenhowersLastSmoke.org on 7/11/2013)

Credit: Jennifer Hill http://www.jhilldesign.com/collections/new-zealand

Credit: Jennifer Hill http://www.jhilldesign.com/collections/new-zealand

“How can I convince you to come visit New Zealand when you’re in Australia?” asked Eisenhower Fellow and a member of the New Zealand parliament, David Clark (@DavidClarkNZ). I have to admit it didn’t take much. Having been to New Zealand once before, I remember the lush scenery, delicious seafood, and collective obsession about the national rugby team. I also remember someone telling me that New Zealand has more sheep than people. (It turns out that is true: http://datamarket.com/featured/man-vs-sheep-new-zealand-myth/)

The New Zealand health care system is a primarily public system, with about 1/3 of the population buying private insurance to have a broader choice of clinicians [or treatment sites] and shorter wait times. The population – just about four million people (with nine times as many sheep) – is two-thirds of European descent and 15% Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand. Notably, the Maori people are reported to have greater challenges accessing health care, with almost a quarter of Maori adults reporting that cost prevented them from seeking primary care.

So it’s not a perfect system. However, in a Commonwealth Fund exploration of seven industrialized nations, New Zealand ranked #1 in patient-centered care, with Australia at #2 and the US, not surprisingly, bringing up the rear at #7. And, they have the lowest per capita expenditure in this set, spending about 1/3 the amount of the US per capita.

As health care leaders in the U.S. talk a lot about “patient-centered” care without always, you know, involving the patient, I am keen to find out what puts New Zealand in the top spot.

It’s also pretty cool to spend time with a member of parliament, particularly one who is committed to addressing issues of social mobility and reducing the wealth gap. Social and economic inequalities are fundamental contributors to the U.S. health system’s dysfunction, and New Zealand may have things to teach us here too.