Skip to comments.Universal Mediocrity: Why do Britons like their sub-par health-care system so much?
Posted on 08/20/2012 9:51:27 AM PDT by SeekAndFind
In April, the British Medical Journal published How the NHS Measures Up to Other Health Systems, a report about two studies conducted by the New Yorkbased Commonwealth Fund that compared the health-care systems of 14 advanced countries. On the 20 measures of comparison, Britains famous (or infamous) centralized system, the National Health Service, performed well in 13, indifferently in two, and badly in five. Was this a cause for national rejoicing?
If popular satisfaction is the aim of a health-care system, the answer must be yes. According to the report, the British were the most satisfied with their health care 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 anxious that their personal finances would prevent them from receiving proper treatment. One could doubtless raise objections to these measures of comparison, but let us for the sake of argument take the results at face value. Subjective satisfaction and relief of anxiety are not minor achievements. Indeed, though the free markets ability to satisfy more needs and desires than any other system is usually cited as one of its principal advantages, here was an apparent instance of the contrary: a nonmarket health-care system that yielded the most satisfaction.
Still, the studies contained a paradox that the authors of the BMJ article failed to notice or, at any rate, to remark upon. On several measures of actual achievement, rather than subjective assessment, 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 cancer. 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. More than one reason for this outcome is possible, but the most likely is that foot care for diabeticsa matter of no small importanceis well arranged in Britain; the amputation rate is four times higher in the United States.
Overall, however, Britain seems to face a self-esteem problem: too much of it. 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. I do not mean this in a disparaging way; the differences between countries survival rates are not immediately visible to casual inspection. The average Briton or Swede is unlikely to know that the five-year survival rate for colorectal cancer is 51.6 percent in Britain but 59.8 percent in Sweden, or that the 30-day fatality rates for myocardial infarction in those two countries are 6.3 percent and 2.9 percent, respectively. (The figures for the United States are 65.5 percent and 5.1 percent.) Personal experience or acquaintance is not enough to reveal these facts. 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.
Another explanation is ideology. The British population has largely been persuaded that the NHS embodies social justice. The system has become a golden calf before which even Margaret Thatcher found it necessary to bow down: The NHS is safe in our hands, she said. And the egalitarian nature of the NHS makes it almost the only institution in a fractured and antagonistic society that can claim allegiance across many divides. We are not proud of our armed forces any longer or, indeed, of anything else; only the NHS survives to unite us. We increasingly are a nation defined by our health-care system.
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 it, even though they probably have never met anyone who envied the NHS and, indeed, know only of Continental Europeans residing in Britain who hurry home as soon as they require medical treatment, horrified by the prospect of subjecting themselves to the rigors of a British hospital. A marked cognitive dissonance reveals itself here.
This attachment to the NHS, notwithstanding any particular experience of it, finds reinforcement in a generally accepted historiography that is propagated by the systems praise singers. According to this narrative, medical treatment in Britain was all horror, cruelty, and darkness until the NHSs creation in 1948 suddenly brought ease, kindness, and light. Such stories as the following are told ad nauseam:
As I was born in September 1939, I am one of those who can remember what a difference the NHS has made. I had hospital treatment both before the NHS came into existence in 1948 and pretty soon afterwards as well.
I had an operation to remove my adenoids in 1946 and, when asked to provide a specimen, was handed an empty milk bottle. At the time I loved drinking milk, and for an impressionable seven-year-old the thought of urinating in a bottle almost turned me off milk for life. It certainly turned me off private healthcare.
A couple of years later I had to have my tonsils removed, this time under the NHS. When asked to provide a sample, I was handed a proper receptacle.
That story, offered by a Labour MP on the occasion of the NHSs 60th anniversary, appeared in the Western Mail, a large daily newspaper in Wales, and is, in fact, a mild example of the genre. It does not occur to the MP that his anecdote does not by itself prove much. Horror stories from the NHS also abound, as in this paragraph from the April 10 Independent reporting British patients recent experiences with nurses:
Diana watched her father fighting for breath and thrashing around in blood-stained sheets while five or six nurses laughed and joked about their recent holidays. Caroline was told by the midwife who was meant to be helping her through labour that she was busy eating her biscuits. Lesley woke up from her operation for breast cancer and was given a drink reluctantly, by a nurse who wouldnt stop reading her magazine. Bronwen, who had open heart surgery, said that there were plenty of nurses hanging around chatting, sometimes on mobile phones, but not many who seemed to want to do their job. Denis woke up in something akin to corrective treatment camp where he saw elderly confused people being threatened in quiet corners and patients being verbally abused.
These ordeals are far worse than anything that the Labour MP suffered in 1946. Would he conclude from them that state-sponsored medicine was an abomination?
The horror stories in the Independent were relayed to the columnist after she publicized some bad treatment that she had received; in a health-care system employing 1.2 million people, it would be surprising to find no such stories. For every one of those, however, one could probably find another of devotion and good care. My mother was nursed extremely well in the NHS in the five weeks leading up to her death; my 92-year-old uncle was nursed in it abominably before he died. What is clear is that articles like the one in the Independent, though they appear regularly in the British press, leave no trace in Britons opinions about their health-care system. Apparently, the NHS was born with original virtue; all other systems partake of original sin.
The two most common measures of public healthused because they are relatively trustworthy, from a statistical point of view, and because they are thought to reflect the state of peoples health in generalare life expectancy at birth and the infant-mortality rate. If we look at these two measures, it is clear that the NHS has been neither a triumphant success nor a complete disaster.
In the 48 years of the twentieth century that preceded the establishment of the NHS, British life expectancy rose from 47 to 66 (that is, by 19 years, or 40.4 percent); in the 48 years after the institution of the NHS, life expectancy rose from 66 to 77.5 (by 11.5 years, or 17.4 percent). Thus life expectancy rose more, both absolutely and relatively, before the NHS than after it. It is clear that the NHS made absolutely no difference to the century-long improvement. Similarly, the infant-mortality rate fell from 140 per 1,000 live births in 1900 to 36 per 1,000 in 1948, a decline of 104 (or 74.3 percent); between 1948 and 1996, the rate fell from 36 to 6, a decline of 30 (or 83.3 percent). Again, it is obvious that the NHS made no difference to the trend.
What happened in France was broadly similar. But one finds an interesting, if slight, difference. In 1948, when Britain inaugurated its National Health Service, Frances life expectancy was six years less than Britains; by 1998, Frances life expectancy had overtaken Britains by a year. Of course, the connection between life expectancy and health-care systems is not necessarily straightforward. Nor does this statistic tell us much about universal health-care systems in general. But at a minimum, the figure shows that the NHS has not proved the salvation of Britains population, as popular mythology claims.
The NHS was founded on the principle that health care should be allocated according to need and not according to ability to pay, so that treatment, paid for by general taxation, should be free at the point of service. In this way, the health of the poor would come closer to equaling that of the rich.
Has this happened? The answer must be noquite the contrary. According to a 2009 report of the House of Commons Health Committee, the difference in the death rates of men in the highest and lowest social classes has widened considerably in the epoch of the NHS. (The report uses the registrar-generals classification of the population, with social class I, the highest, consisting of professionals and upper managerial staff and social class V, the lowest, of unskilled workers.) Between 1930 and 1948, a man in the lowest class in England and Wales was 1.2 times more likely to die at any given age than a man in the highest, a ratio that remained constant even as general life expectancy increased. By 1993, after 45 years of the NHS, a man in the lowest social class was 2.9 times more likely to die at any given age than a man in the highest. The class gap widened even further between 1997 and 2007a decade in which the Labour government doubled health-care spending. So whatever else may be said, the effect of the NHS has not been egalitarian.
Two considerations arise here, however. The first, as a simple thought experiment shows, is that equality in health is not necessarily desirable in itself. Suppose that the infant-mortality rate in the highest social class is three per 1,000 live births, while that in the lowest is six per 1,000 (approximately the case in Britain today). Then suppose that we could reduce the rate by one death per 1,000 births in each social class, yielding two per 1,000 in the highest class and five per 1,000 in the lowest. A cause for rejoicing, certainlybut not from the point of view of equality, for the ratio of deaths in the lowest class to deaths in the highest class would widen from 6:3 to 5:2that is, from 2.0 to 2.5. Surely, however, only a latter-day Lenin would reject such an improvement because it increased inequality. Similarly, an increase in the infant-mortality rate of the highest social class, to six per 1,000, would represent an advance to complete equality; but again, no one but a Lenin would wish it.
Second, the increased inequality of British health is necessarily attributable to the NHS only if the health-care system is the only, or overwhelmingly the most important, determinant of a populations healthand it is not. For example, it has been estimated that half of the variance in life expectancy between the highest and lowest social classes in England and Wales is attributable to the difference in their rates of smoking. Ones level of education also has a profound effect on ones chances in life. Both factors are beyond the scope of the NHS, or of any system of health care, to affect.
But the point is that one of the claimed vindications of the system is that it is egalitarian in effect. Clearly, it is not. What is striking in Britain is the persistence of the idea that the NHS is egalitarian, even while journalistic and governmental laments at the widening health gap between the rich and the poor grow ever louder.
Of course, there is more to life than the infant-mortality rate and life expectancy; the years between infancy and death must be occupied somehow. Does the NHS make the passage between birth and death easier, better, and more comfortable, or more difficult, worse, and more uncomfortable, for those who come within its jurisdiction?
This question is by no means easy to answer, and perhaps the same answer cannot be given for everyone. The statistics demonstrate that the system is neither the total disaster that some claim nor the answer to mankinds prayers (as Michael Moores tendentious film Sicko suggested). At one time, the NHS could even claim certain strengths that other systems lackedfor example, in the coordination of medical care 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. For example, 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 medical need; the American polypharmacy rate is also two and a half times the Swiss rate, and whatever one might think of British medical care, few would impugn the quality of care in Switzerland.
Traditionally, the NHS has been inexpensive compared with most health-care systems, Britain spending less on its health care per head and as a proportion of GDP than any other developed country. But this reality is changing quickly. The NHS was inexpensive because it rationed care by means of long waiting lists; it also neglected to spend money on new hospitals and equipment. I once had a patient who had been waiting seven years for his hernia operation. The surgery was repeatedly postponed so that a more urgent one might be performed. When he wrote to complain, he was told to wait his turn.
Such rationing has become increasingly unacceptable to the population, aware that it does not occur elsewhere in the developed world. This was the ostensible reason for the Labour governments doubling of health-care spending between 1997 and 2007. To achieve this end, the government used borrowed money and thereby helped bring about our current economic crisis. Waiting times for operations and other procedures fell, but they will probably rise again as economic necessity forces the government to retrench.
But the principal damage that the NHS inflicts is intangible. Like any centralized health-care system, it spreads the notion of entitlement, a powerful solvent of human solidarity. Moreover, the entitlement mentality has a tendency to spread over the whole of human life, creating a substantial number of disgruntled ingrates.
And while the British government long refrained from interfering too strongly in the affairs of the medical profession, no government can forever resist the temptation to exercise its latent powers. Eventually, it will dictatebecause that is what governments and their associated bureaucracies, left to their own devices, and of whatever political complexion, do. The governments hold over medical practice in Britain is becoming ever firmer; it now dictates conditions of work and employment, the number of hours worked, the drugs and other treatments that may be prescribed, the way in which doctors must be trained, and even what should be contained in applicants references for jobs. Doctors are less and less members of a profession; instead, they are production workers under strict bureaucratic control, paid not so much by result as by degree of conformity to directives.
This can happen under any system with third-party payment: it is an old observation that he who pays the piper calls the tune. But to have only one paymaster is to compound the problem, to make sure that there is only one tune. Therefore, even when the paymaster gets something right, an intangible harm is done.
And often, of course, unique paymasters do not get things right, since they have little incentive to do so, if not positive incentives not to do so. For example, the NHS recently abandoned its attempt to introduce a single database containing the entire populations medical recordsafter $20 billion had been spent on the project. There is absolutely nothing to show for the money, except possibly a number of new information-technology millionaires. Historians will later sift through the records to decide whether incompetence or corruption was more to blame.
In obeying directives not because they are right but because they are directives, doctors lose their self-respect, their probity, and their intellectual honesty. Gogolian absurdity can resultwith a hint of Kafkaesque menace and Orwellian linguistic dishonesty. When the British government decreed that every patient arriving in the emergency room should be admitted to a hospital ward within four hours if admission was necessary (and that hospitals would face fines if they failed to adhere to the rule), traffic jams of ambulances formed outside one famous hospital, with their patients prevented from entering the emergency rooms until the hospital could comply with the directive. Other hospitals redesignated their corridors as wards so that they could claim that patients on stretchers had been admitted in time. In a centralized system, the setting of targets will encourage organized deception, as well as distortion of effort.
In the United States, after President Obamas health-care law proposed fining hospitals that readmitted too many patients within 30 days of discharge, editorials in the New England Journal of Medicine pointed out the dangers posed by that rule. They omitted to say that when giant bureaucracies set targets for others to reach, they intend not so much to procure improvement as to impose control.
Theodore Dalrymple is a contributing editor of City Journal and the Dietrich Weismann Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
So to distill all of this down, what matters most is not the quality of the health care, but the quality of the brainwashing.
Too busy ‘looking on the bright side of life’?
With is easy payments, quick/efficient service, and fantastic care from Doctors and nurses.
It was just tragic!
I have seen an argument that Brits have better health and longer life expectancies than Americans, and, of course, they tried to give credit to NHS.
Dunno how accurate it actually was (they were arguing for single payer...).
“At least its FAIR, cause its equally crappy for everyone and the wealthy/politically connected cannot jump to the head of the line ahead of Joe Bagadonuts.”
Or at least they delude themselves into thinking that.
For “social justice” read, “Someone else is paying for it.”
I am a Brit who lived in America for a number of years and have had experience of both systems, and what I can say is, American healthcare is the best in the world if you are privileged enough to be able to afford it (and we were). Those less fortunate had a much less positive experience. One woman (a mother) couldn’t get psychiatric treatment despite having a history of suicide attempts and severe depression, until my mum asked around a few friends and got her admitted to a research program. One of our neighbours had a heart attack, lost his job and was considered uninsurable, stress which I doubt would have been of much benefit to a man with a potentially fatal heart condition.
In contrast, I have not experienced or personally heard of any instances of abominable treatment of myself or anyone I know within the NHS. The most serious issue we confronted was that some of the nurses were a bit rude on occasion, but apart from that, the treatment was perfectly OK.
It wasn’t in quite the same league as the treatment my sister got in the states when she got pneumonia, with her own private room, games console, TV etc but then, our insurance policy was completely awesome, apart from one little hiccup when the insurance company had to be fought to keep paying for treatment after three days in hospital, which they considered to be more than enough to get over pneumonia! A couple of days later, they had to bring the crash team into her room for fear that she was about to go into cardiac arrest...
The events in America I described happened in the early 90s, I don’t know if things have gotten worse since then. Like I said, in healthcare terms tts better to be rich in America than poor in Britain, but if you are poor in America, things are bad, unless you can get on a research program, or you are some kind of photogenic orphan, neglected war-hero or have some other reason for people to have a media-inspired whip-round to pay for your treatment. Everyone else who can’t afford it, well, the attitude generally seems in my experience, to be ‘TFB’. I’m hardly a socialist, but even I have some qualms about just leaving people to die because they don’t have the money to pay for treatment because they had the temerity to be a low-paid worker instead of a dynamic, successful entrepreneur.
They often don’t even get as far as the hospital (only as far as the morgue), so even you, as a healthcare worker, won’t even get to see them become a statistic.
At least in Britain, you have a better chance of getting reasonable treatment and won’t have to sell your house just to be able to stay alive. If you have worked in Britain, then you will already know that private healthcare systems like BUPA already exist for those who want to pay to go private. A lot of well-off people who can afford it won’t use it on principle, including my own parents. Its quite a common attitude here in Britain, but it is an option available for those who want to take it up.
Exactly right. Britons are happy with their health service because they know no better. And lets face it, most people do not have regular interactions with hospitals most of the time.
Truth is a lot more subjective than most of us think (or would wish for).
I state straight away that I am a Brit, so you know where I am coming from.
With regard to this, I think we all get too hung up on systems. In the final analysis, the quality of care you receive is primarily down to the skill, dedication and training of the medical staff (and to a lesser extent the non medical support staff). Now doctors and nurses are generally very dedicated. If they are well trained and highly motivated they will make even the worst system work. Conversely, if they are poorly trained and don't care, they will drag even the best system down. If we really wanted to improve health care, we should concentrate on motivation, training and terms of service, not incessent tinkering with remuneration and organisation.
All healthcare systems have their problems. There are some on the American left who think adoption of an NHS type system in the US will be some kind of panacea for all your difficulties. It won't be. The best, and I mean the very best, that will happen is that you will exchange one set of problems for another. The main problem with the US system, as buckeye implies, is that legions of lawyers and an extreme compensation culture are pushing up the costs of the system to exorbitant levels. Partly because of insurance, but also because fear of legal action encourages Doctors to order all manner of expensive and unneccesary tests and treatments. If you want to fix US healthcare, I would be inclined to deal with that, rather than overhaul the entire system.
The main problem with the British NHS system is that, being State run, it quickly generates an enormous bureacracy that discourages change and stunts initiative. The NHS employs well over a million people in the UK, over half of whom have NO medical qualifications of any kind. This has great political ramifications. One million plus employees is a huge slice of the populace, all of whom have a vested interest in keeping the system as is. It is impossible, literally, for any British politician to criticise the NHS. Anyone who does would be out of office in double quick time. Therefore, it is extremely difficult to reform the NHS. That is not good, and as far as I can advise, is probably the main reason why Americans should be wary of things like Obamacare.
And from my experience, the fastest rising portion of health care costs is coming from hospitals, which are dealing with having to be the primary care provider, with hardly any compensation, for 50 million illegal immigrants.
The wealthy/politically connected won’t be able to jump to the head of the line here either ... the wealthy/politically will not have to face a line here at all.