No NHS criticism please, we’re British?

Last week, Victoria Macdonald, who has covered health and social care for Channel 4 News since 1999, felt that she needed to let everyone know that she does not hate the NHS. This followed online accusations that she did, one nastily linked to her daughter’s treatment for a head injury in an NHS hospital.

The cause of what she calls “vitriol and abuse” was her film on Sir Brian Jarman’s comparisons of hospital standardised mortality ratios in different countries, finding that on this one specific measure – the rather important one of whether patients survive a hospital visit – the US does better than the UK, with patients 45% more likely to die in British hospitals than American ones. She wrote:

For reasons that have never been quite clear to me, a number of people out there seemed to think that I was saying the American healthcare system was better than the NHS. I have gone back over my script a number of times but it is not there.  I did not say it.  Indeed, I specifically said that the American system was expensive and that there was no universal access.

In the round, the US healthcare system has severe problems, costing twice as much as Britain’s per person with poorer average outcomes – and, of course, no universal access. But in parts, including some of its hospitals, it is superb. Denying that seems bizarre; far better to learn from it, as to be fair many in the NHS are keen to do.

The NHS is much better at providing healthcare to all at a reasonable cost than the US, and at its best, it too is superb. But at worst, it’s definitely not superb, as the healthcare scandals of the last few years should have made plain. NHS trusts vary enormously in quality: some provide world-leading care, but some need all the care they can get. (For an idea of some in these two categories, try this Department of Health announcement.)

Yet NHS criticism is often unwelcome: staff whistle-blowers are often ignored or even punished, as Dr Phil Hammond notes, and campaigners often have to shout about problems for years before anything gets done, as happened at Mid-Staffordshire.

It only serves to harm the NHS to pretend it is perfect and that the rest of the world has nothing to teach Britain about healthcare. It’s entirely reasonable to criticise this government and previous ones for their management of the health service, but that should not lead to blindness to the NHS’s faults – or criticism of someone who points them out.

2 thoughts on “No NHS criticism please, we’re British?”

  1. This is a great article.

    Having just got back from a paediatricians visit with my son, I can attest that the US system is outstanding, if you can afford it. There is no ignoring the fact that the costs are incredible, but what I get for it is impressive. An excellent facility, but more important than that, we had the attention of the doctor for as long as we wanted. She would have sat patiently answering our questions for as long as we kept the questions coming. She’s also readily accessible via e-mail, and again, answers our questions herself, within 24 hours.

    That is, something for the NHS to strive for.

    However, I can’t ignore that healthcare for me and my family this year will cost $25,981. That gets me essentially the same “free at the point of service” care that the NHS gives, since I have no deductibles, no copay for my son, and only a $10 copay for my wife and I.

    Both services could learn from each other.

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