There’s a chart that’s been doing the rounds in recent weeks that seems to tell a stark, if not shocking, story about Britain’s healthcare system.
It shows the amount that various countries invest in their health systems (capital expenditure, as economists call it). What you see, if you color in the area covered by these countries, which include Austria, Germany, France, and the US, is a gradually increasing trend.
You see that countries have been gradually increasing the amount they spend on hospitals, beds, equipment and all the other things that constitute a long-term investment in health.
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Now look at the UK.
In stark contrast, his line goes up in the middle of the pack until around 2010, at which point the line drops precipitously. At the bottom of the graph, it is well below the area covered by the rest of those countries.
The lesson is quite clear: the level of underinvestment in Britain is a significant outlier compared to the rest of the developed world.
But as with much of the healthcare system, this story isn’t quite as simple as that.
Because if you add a few other countries to the table, places like Spain and Japan, whose healthcare systems aren’t all that different to the UK, and indeed most of continental Europe, suddenly things look a little different. .
Now the UK line, while it has certainly fallen from mid-table, is no longer an outlier.
It’s a helpful reminder that while there’s no doubting the struggles facing Britain’s healthcare system today, the story is invariably much more complicated than is sometimes portrayed.
Actually, the number of GP treatments and first appointments for cancer has risen sharply since 2019 (not necessarily good news, but a sign that some parts of the system are successfully ramping up production).
However, these days, the signs of success are outnumbered by the signs of stress.
Emergency admissions, elective admissions, waiting list procedures, outpatient appointments, all have dropped dramatically since before the pandemic.
The proportion of people who wait more than two weeks to see a cancer specialist has risen from just 5% a few years ago to more than 25% in recent months.
The surprising thing is that all this has happened despite a fairly strong increase in the number of employees.
There are significantly more junior doctors, senior managers, clinical support staff, consultants, and nurses than before the pandemic.
Yet even as there are more doctors and nurses, the system is struggling to keep up with the demand.
In part, this is because demand is unusually high at the moment. COVID cases are increasing, as are other winter illnesses.
Waiting lists have been piling up since the pandemic and are unlikely to start shrinking for some time.
For all sorts of reasons, the country is, to put it bluntly, sicker than usual.
It’s partly because of something else: Britain is struggling to free up hospital beds for incoming patients.
The proportion of hospital beds that are occupied for more than seven days is significantly higher this winter than in any of the past five years.
This means that even with all the doctors and nurses we currently have, there is simply no capacity to treat patients.
But partly it’s about the table we started with.
The UK may not be a complete outlier when it comes to investing in health, but that doesn’t mean it has invested enough.
The problem is that this country has always had a low number of hospital beds compared to its population. It always had a low number of MRI machines and a staggeringly low number of CT scanners compared to the rest of the developed world.
And instead of correcting these deficiencies in recent years, it has allowed them to worsen.