As the United States debates health-care reform, VOA is looking at
health-care services around the world.
The idea behind Britain's
health-care system is straightforward, says Michael Summers of the
non-profit Patients Association that helps people understand the
National Health Service.
"Everyone is entitled to free health
care at the time of need, both in relation to consulting their general
practitioner, and to hospital treatment and operations. It is free,"
Summers explains every worker in the country pays for it through a national insurance tax.
is relatively cheap for what you get, and it has been in existence for
60 years, so it is well established as a health service and it works,"
he said. "It is not perfect, but then there is no country that has a
Everyone is covered
One of its strengths is everyone is covered, says Fiona Wise, who runs three London-area hospitals.
provide care for elderly people, for mothers to be, for newborn babies,
for children, and we provide long-term care for certain groups of
patients who have what we would describe as chronic illnesses," said
Summers says the service takes care of people, not just in hospitals, but in doctors offices and dentists throughout Britain.
is vast, absolutely vast," he said. "It is the biggest employer in the
country. It is said to employ more people than the Red Army, if that
is a comparison. It is vast, it costs an enormous amount of money, but
of course it is funded from taxation and the contribution made by
The sheer size of the service is at the heart of many
complaints, such as long waiting times, canceled operations and poor
Errors by doctors who are either too pressed for
time or inadequately funded are also a growing problem. Studies
indicate up to 15 percent of all patients in Britain are diagnosed
incorrectly or have ailments that are overlooked.
specialist Dr. Karol Sikora says the quality of care is uneven, because
local authorities decide which medications or treatments are available.
of them has a different philosophy about heart disease, about cancer,
about mental illness," said Sikora. "And the services you get, for
whatever it is you need, depends critically on where you live. We call
this post-code prescribing."
Some patients have waged campaigns
in the courts or the media in order to get access to treatment or
medicine authorities have deemed too expensive, even if it prolongs
Sikora says British authorities lag behind other European nations in making cancer drugs available.
they take three years to decide whether a drug for kidney cancer can be
included or not, then that is three years of kidney cancer patients who
cannot get the drug and that is what we have seen during the past
several years," she said.
But having a national health-care
service does have its advantages in some areas. The British
government's chief medical adviser, Liam Donaldson, says it makes
organizing vaccinations and planning a response to flu outbreaks
"We can, if necessary, be very centralized," said
Donaldson. "We can get stockpiles of anti-virals, we can distribute
them to people, we can put a vaccine program in place and get very high
levels of coverage. When we have shortages in one part of the country
- of beds or intensive-care beds - we can ensure that a network of
services provides them in another part of the country."
critics and supporters agree one of the British national health
service's biggest challenges, as it enters its seventh decade, are the
mounting cost of new technology and medicines, and an aging