Explaining the popularity of the NHS

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  • 08/22/2012
Theodore Dalrymple on the NHS in the L.A. Times:

On several measures, the NHS came out the worst of all the systems examined. For example, it ranked worst for five-year survival rates in cervical, breast and colon cancers. It was also worst for 30-day mortality rates after admission to a hospital for either hemorrhagic or ischemic stroke. On only one clinical measure was it best: the avoidance of amputation of the foot in diabetic gangrene.

This hardly seems like a cause for national rejoicing, yet according to the report, the British were the most satisfied with their healthcare of all the populations surveyed. They were the most confident that in the event of illness, they would receive the best and most up-to-date treatment; and they were the least worried that their personal finances would prevent them from receiving proper treatment.

So, how is it that the population most confident that it will receive treatment of the highest possible standard, featuring the latest medical advances, actually has the worst survival rates in precisely those diseases that require the most up-to-date treatments?

One explanation is ignorance. The average Briton or Swede is unlikely to know that the five-year survival rate for colorectal cancer is 51.6% in Britain but 59.8% in Sweden, or that the 30-day fatality rates for myocardial infarction in those two countries are 6.3% and 2.9%, respectively. (The figures for the United States are 65.5% and 5.1%.) By contrast, the average Briton knows that if he suffers a heart attack, he will be taken to the hospital and connected to a lot of machines, from which he concludes that he is having the best possible treatment.

In my youth, I often heard the refrain that the NHS was "the envy of the world," and people in Britain are still inclined to believe that, even though they probably have never met anyone who envied the NHS and, indeed, probably know Continental Europeans residing in Britain who hurry home as soon as they require medical treatment, horrified by the prospect of subjecting themselves to a British hospital.

That said, there are some strengths the system can claim. Medical care is coordinated, for example, by means of a universal (and compulsory) system of family doctors. The lack of such coordination in the United States leads not only to a high rate of medical error but to duplication of effort.

The American rate of polypharmacy (the taking of four or more medicines daily) is twice the British rate. This difference is unlikely to reflect genuine need; the American polypharmacy rate is also 21/2 times the Swiss rate, and whatever one might think of British medical care, few would impugn the quality of care in Switzerland.

Read the full piece here.


Center for Medicine in the Public Interest is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization promoting innovative solutions that advance medical progress, reduce health disparities, extend life and make health care more affordable, preventive and patient-centered. CMPI also provides the public, policymakers and the media a reliable source of independent scientific analysis on issues ranging from personalized medicine, food and drug safety, health care reform and comparative effectiveness.

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