19 August 2009

At last. Sanity on the health debate

Danny Finkelstein has a must read column in The Times on the differing healthcare systems in the UK and America.  This is the key section:

On a piece of paper, in a pamphlet, it may seem helpful to pitch one country’s system against another. But practically? Politically? It really isn’t that useful. The US will never create the NHS and the UK will not adopt the American system because we are starting in different places.

The only meeting point is that we face a common crisis. Available treatments now outstrip our ability (never mind our willingness) to pay for them. In the US this is experienced as a crisis of cost, with health inflation rampant. In the UK it is experienced as a crisis of provision, with the State refusing to finance life-saving procedures.

The fatuous efforts to compare the quality of US care with that of the UK never seem to give sufficient prominence to the money Americans spend purchasing their quality. The World Health Organisation records that in 2006, Americans spent $6,719 per head while Britons spent $2,815. One result of this disparity is the startling fact that the US Government spends more on healthcare per head of population than the UK Government does ($3,076 in the US compared with $2,457 in the UK). The Obama reforms are required as much to get a grip on these costs as to ensure universal healthcare.

Meanwhile, in the UK we have some control over costs (although it doesn’t always feel like that) but little answer to the pressing problem of the next decade — how do we decide how much of our income to spend on treatment and how do we cope with the fact that, while every person has a different answer to this question, we all still feel that everyone should get a good standard of care.

If we are going to spend time on either side of the Atlantic debating health policy perhaps we might use it debating these dilemmas. Spending it on a pointless comparison between the NHS and the Americans is a gigantic waste of effort.

What Finkelstein has said is spot on, and, yes, it is a pointless comparison.  Americans have a fear of centralised government and considers itself more individualistic in approach.  This is possibly due to the size of country and the remoteness of Washington.  In Europe and in the UK it is different.

Brown, of course, will dismiss all this when he attempts to to create his dividing lines with the Tories over the NHS and will no doubt leverage off Obama’s health plans.  It will be a futile debate that creates more heat than light.

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