Britain must put health before political philosophy

Blindly defending the NHS does not make you noble, good, or compassionate. We must stop prioritising political dreams over people’s health

Is blind devotion to the NHS stopping Britain's healthcare improving?
John Phelan
On 22 January 2013 09:51

It is sometimes said that the NHS is the closest thing the increasingly secular British have to a religion. And, like a religion, when questioned its defenders react with accusations of evil and heresy. When Daniel Hannan criticised the NHS in 2009 then Health Secretary Andy Burnham branded him “unpatriotic”.

The dogged defenders of the NHS are wedded to the idea upon which it was founded – the provision of healthcare to all, free at the point of use. In their love of this egalitarian idea they forget that the NHS exists to take care of people’s health, not to advance a political philosophy.

And so, when evaluating a healthcare system, what matters is not the political philosophy but how effectively it cares for your health. The NHS is just a tool, no more, no less, to be employed towards the actual goal of health care. The NHS is useful only so long as it achieves that goal more efficiently than an alternative system. It makes no more sense to get emotionally attached to the NHS then it does to get emotionally attached to a spanner.

Perhaps the revelations from the Alexandra Hospital in Redditch, of patients left screaming in pain, wallowing in their own faeces, starving to death, and receiving cruel treatment from nurses, will finally force the dogged defenders to wake up, grow up, stop relying on unthinking emotion, and critically evaluate our 64-year-old health care system.

It is almost impossible to say anything critical of the NHS without someone accusing you of wanting an American system where, as healthcare expert (sic) Russell Brand puts it, “people die on the streets” for want of an NHS. Indeed, in the UK they die in the hospitals from starvation or lack of hygiene and the consequent deaths from easily preventable infections like C Diff or MRSA.

The idea is that, rather implausibly, the USA has (or had) a profit driven, unregulated market for healthcare. In truth, even before Obamacare, the health care system in the USA was, along with finance and housing, one of the most regulated, government-driven sectors of the US economy. And what do all those markets have in common?

Secondly, it is utterly false to pretend that the mythical capitalist free-for-all of the US is the only alternative to the NHS. This is a falsehood born either of dishonesty or an ignorance of the variety of healthcare systems.   

In Japan patients can go to any doctor or facility they choose and they pay 30 percent of the costs. In Italy patients co-pay with the state for drugs and visits to doctors but can opt out completely into a fully private alternative. In France people pay an insurance premium to one of a number of competing companies, pay when they visit a doctor, and are reimbursed the majority of the costs. Across the world in fact a mixture of public and private is the norm in health care.

The World Health Organisation ranks each of these systems above the NHS. In fact, the WHO ranks the health care systems of 11 out of 34 OECD member countries above the NHS. Yet we continue to tell ourselves that “the NHS is the envy of the world” like some catechism. Well, it isn’t the envy of Japan, Italy, and France.

The NHS model of a single monopoly producer and central planning was a major factor in the disgusting lack of care at the Alexandra Hospital. Under the NHS the health care providers, doctors and nurses, work to satisfy targets handed to them by a central, unitary authority. It is these targets they must meet, these bureaucrats they must satisfy, not the patients who have little if any choice over the care they receive.

The NHS killed 1,200 people in Staffordshire. Can you imagine any other organisation in the country killing 1,200 people and trying to cover it up without serious, fundamental questions being asked about whether that organisation ought to continue?

Blindly defending this system does not make you noble, good, or compassionate. We must stop prioritising political dreams over people’s health.  

John Phelan is a Contributing Editor for The Commentator and a Fellow at the Cobden Centre. He has also written for City AM and Conservative Home and he blogs at Manchester Liberal. Follow him on Twitter @TheBoyPhelan

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