The Netherlands has an unhealthy obsession with statistics

Rankings praising the Dutch health system abound in the media but what do the results really say about the Netherlands?, asks DutchNews.nl editor Robin Pascoe.

If you read the Dutch press, it cannot have escaped your attention that not so long ago the Dutch health service was again ranked one of the best in the world.

We foreigners may moan about over-inquisitive receptionists when visiting our family doctor and the fondness for paracetamol, but in terms of our health we are actually lucky to be living here.

Yes, in May, the Netherlands came in ninth place in a ranking of almost 200 countries by The Lancet magazine. The ranking was compiled by looking at how likely you are to survive various nasty diseases, including tuberculosis, whooping cough and measles – 32 different ailments in total.

Contrast this then, with a survey published in early 2015 by Sweden’s Health Consumer Powerhouse. It put the Dutch health service at the top of a ranking of 36 different European countries for the second year running. Why did the Dutch do well? Accessibility and the lack of government interference.

Ministry

Or what about research by the Commonwealth Fund think-tank in America, which put the Netherlands at the top of a list of 11 western countries in terms of its healthcare system. That research was published at the end of last year and led to a lengthy and proud analysis on the Dutch health ministry’s own website, complete with comment from the minister.

What is really striking about all these rankings is not that the Dutch healthcare system does so well, but the fact the rankings themselves gather so many column inches.

Dutch reporting on all this success also invariably includes the phrase ‘not bad for a kleine kikkerland’ – a little frog country – which is how the Dutch seem to like to describe their homeland. What this choice little phrase really illustrates is that perhaps the reason for the obsession with rankings is an enormous minority complex.

Research

Be it healthcare, or happiness or kindness to animals (someone must be researching that one) you can guarantee your research will get published if the Dutch are doing well.

At DutchNews.nl too we are guilty of this. A quick hunt through the archives reveals that the Netherlands has moved up into fourth place in the World Economic Forum’s ranking of the most competitive countries. The Netherlands is the sixth happiest country in the world, tops a ranking of the world’s most proficient at English, Dutch men are the world’s tallest and there are seven Dutch people in Forbes’ ranking of 300 under 30… the list is endless.

These stories invariably do well on our social media platforms – foreigners too like to share Dutch success stories – and inevitably help spread the name of the compiling organisation. Want to launch a new brand? Come up with a list which is topped by the Dutch and free publicity could be yours.

Children’s rights

Not all rankings are good news, however. Perhaps the most bizarre ranking in recent months was the one produced by the KidsRights Foundation which looked into children’s rights and put the Netherlands in 15th place behind Thailand, Tunisia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The poor Dutch performance was due to its trailing in two of the five key categories – education and the environment. In terms of education, the Netherlands was rated 58th in a list which had Egypt in 5th place and Bangladesh in 17th. The research was carried out together with Rotterdam’s Erasmus University which, in case you are wondering, said the Dutch decline ‘reflects the concerns about children in the Netherlands who live in poverty, and on cuts that also affect families and children with a minimum income’.

So where does Erasmus figure in all those rankings of the world’s best universities? They show an equally confusing picture. Take the QS World University Rankings for example, which last year said Amsterdam was the top-rated Dutch university, followed by Delft, and had just two Dutch institutions in the top 100.

The Times Higher Education ranking, however, puts Delft in the lead of the Dutch pack and had five Dutch institutions in the top 100. But QS also put Delft as second best in the world for civil and structural engineering. Confused? It gets even stranger when you add in the ranking compiled by Jia Tong University in Shanghai, which puts Utrecht top of the Dutch institutions, followed by Groningen.

Last month also saw the publication of a new list which said the Netherlands is home to the most problem drinkers in Europe, apart from Ireland and Denmark. It was a stark little statistic that also generated lots of newspaper headlines but in fact should have been consigned to the bin.

‘Forty percent of Dutch men are problematic drinkers compared with 25% worldwide,’ the results stated. When it comes to women, 27% have an alcohol problem, compared with 20% on a global basis.

Shocking figures indeed, but perhaps not that shocking when you dig a little deeper and discover the Dutch sample of some 3,000 people had an average age of 23. The sample also included way more youngsters with a college or university education than the population at large and was overwhelmingly white. You might have well as headlined the article ‘Dutch frat boys drink a lot’ and be done with it.

This article was first published in the Xpat Journal