On Channel 4 News last night, the main story centred on apparently shocking figures about death rates in NHS hospitals. The figures were indeed shocking - but only in the sense that they seemed shockingly shoddy.
‘Cradle-to-grave care: it’s what the National Health Service was set up to do’, said presenter Cathy Newman, ‘but shocking new figures given to this programme reveal that the NHS is fundamentally failing. They suggest that death rates in hospitals in England have been far higher than in hospitals in other countries.’ The stats were put together by Professor Sir Brian Jarman; they indicate that in 2004, death rates in English hospitals were the highest among seven developed countries. The adjusted death rate for English hospitals was 22 per cent higher than the average for the countries studied and 58 per cent higher than the best-performing country, the US.
Comparing UK and US figures must be fraught with difficulties. For starters, many people in the US are without medical insurance. Some are covered by state provision, but many are not, which was the impulse for President Obama’s healthcare reforms. So it may be that poorer people, with a tendency to worse health, never make it to hospitals in the first place.
What is certainly true is that the US spends far more on healthcare than the UK. Even government-funded healthcare in the US costs more than the UK, despite only covering a minority of the population. According to a statistical note for the House of Commons in 2011, the US government spends the equivalent of 7.4 per cent of GDP to provide healthcare to 46.5 per cent of its population. The UK government spends 7.2 per cent of GDP to cover 82.6 per cent of its population. In total, including private expenditure, the US spends 16 per cent of GDP on healthcare compared with 8.7 per cent in the UK.
So it should not be surprising that the US performs better than the UK. Channel 4 News took us to the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, which, as reporter Victoria Macdonald noted, looked more like a grand modern hotel than a hospital. It would be a shock if such institutions didn’t manage to perform better than the average district general hospital in the UK.