The NHS has faced tough times in recent years. Facing a perfect storm of government spending cuts, reduced numbers of community support staff and an ageing population, our national health service is under extraordinary strain.
But despite these pressures, the NHS has come out on top in a ranking of healthcare systems for the second time in three years.
Experts at the influential Commonwealth Fund health thinktank have deemed the NHS the best, safest and most affordable healthcare system out of 11 wealthy Western countries.
Denis Campbell, health policy editor at the Guardian, observes that the success of the NHS comes “despite the longest budget squeeze in its 69-year history, serious understaffing and the disruption caused by a radical restructuring of the service in England in 2013.”
The UK was rated as having the best healthcare system overall, ahead of Australia in second position and the Netherlands in third. Healthcare systems were also assessed in Canada, France, Germany, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the US.
The effectiveness of the countries’ healthcare systems was measured by 11 criteria. The UK came first in four of the categories, deemed to deliver the safest care, be the best at “care processes”, provide the most affordable care and offer the most equity (fairness).
These findings would appear to contradict the argument that the NHS is inefficient.
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Health secretary Jeremy Hunt said that he welcomed the news. “These outstanding results are a testament to the dedication of NHS staff, who despite pressure on the frontline are delivering safer, more compassionate care than ever,” he said.
He added that “the NHS has again showed why it is the single thing that makes us most proud to be British.”
However, it wasn’t all good news. The NHS came 10th out of 11 in the ‘healthcare outcomes’ category, beating only the US, which was also judged to have the worst healthcare system overall.
Healthcare outcomes measure how successful treatment has been. The experts said that the UK does relatively poorly in its five-year survival rates for breast and bowel cancer, and deaths among people admitted to hospital after a stroke.
“This international research is a welcome reminder of the fundamental strengths of the NHS, and a call to arms in support of the NHS Forward View practical plan to improve cancer, mental health and other outcomes of care,” said an NHS England spokesperson.
Richard Murray, director of policy at the London-based King’s Fund thinktank, said: “The UK’s ranking is welcome and reflects the strong fundamentals of the NHS."
However, he noted that the poorer health outcomes were “particularly stark given the cuts to public health spending that were announced recently.”
Local authorities in England are being forced to spend more than 5% less this year on public health than in 2013-14, as a range of services – including sexual health and help to stop smoking – face cuts of £85m.
The Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) said that the scale of the cuts revealed by the research, conducted by the King’s Fund, would be “devastating for the health of the nation”.