Is our love for the NHS bad for our health?

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In the run-up to the 70th anniversary of the NHS, we’ve been talking with the public to better understand their relationship with and expectations of the service and their views on who is responsible for keeping people healthy.

It almost goes without saying that there is huge support for the NHS, with the vast majority of people supporting the founding principles of a service free at the point of delivery, available to all and funded largely by taxation. As one participant at our recent discussion events said, ‘I do have a love for the NHS, it’s part of our heritage.’   

We hear views like this so often that it’s easy to take public support for the NHS for granted, but our findings throw up interesting questions about what the relationship between the public and the NHS means for our wider health. Could our love for the NHS actually be bad for our health? 

There are signs that this may indeed be the case.

First, there’s an argument that our attachment to the NHS means that we don’t demand enough of the NHS and that we sometimes tolerate a level of service that would be unacceptable in other areas of our lives. Although ‘rising patient expectations’ is often cited as one of the pressures currently facing the service, there is little solid evidence to back this up. The premise is that in other areas of our lives we have become a ‘right here, right now’ society and we bring these increasing demands to bear on what we expect from the NHS, but this work raises serious questions over how true this is. 

People we spoke to were aware that they moderate their demands because NHS staff are under intense pressure and because their expectations are largely rooted in their previous experiences of the NHS. Some people also felt that because the NHS is so well liked, people were less critical of it even when their experience was not as good as it could be:

We give private companies much more of a hard time because they make so much more profit and have more money to play with.

This begs the question: should we ask more of the NHS and does our affection for it limit our ability to be sufficiently critical of the service we receive? 

Second, there is an argument that if government funding follows popular support, then other areas that don’t top the polls are left struggling with the NHS crowding out the case for increased spending in other areas. 

Sarah Wollaston, chair of the Health and Care Select Committee, speaking at a recent King’s Fund event, was asked what led to the government’s seeming about-turn on NHS funding and the answer was telling: they had listened to the polling over the past year showing rising concern for the future of the NHS, with increasing numbers of people willing to pay more tax to fund it. Does the public and subsequent political support for the NHS blind us to the need for greater investment in other areas – such as social care and public health – that would arguably have a greater impact on our health and wellbeing? 

In work undertaken in partnership with the Health Foundation, we asked the public about its views on the future funding of social care. The contrast with the NHS was stark – most people were unclear what social care is and even less clear on how it is funded, which goes a long way to explaining why there has not been the public clamour to fix what is an increasingly broken system and why politicians have managed to avoid dealing with it. When the current system was explained to them they were shocked and understood the case for change. At our event, Paul Burstow, former minister of state for care services, said that this year is also the 70th birthday of social care but it is not clear whether there will be a cake, what the recipe is or indeed who will be paying for the ingredients. 

On public health, a recent poll conducted by Ipsos MORI asked people which areas they would prioritise if the government were to devote more money to health and health care services. Number one was urgent and emergency care, followed by spending on mental health – a considerable achievement for all those who have been making the case for increased spending to improve parity of esteem. Bottom of the list was spending on prevention, arguably the area that would have the biggest effect on the overall health of the nation. Spending on public health has endured significant cuts in recent years and Jacqui Smith, former home secretary, argued at our event that the government needs to step up to the mark. People we spoke to at our events clearly understood the case for greater investment in prevention but it was not top of mind in the same way the NHS is. 

There is no doubt that public support and concern for the NHS has been a significant driver behind the recent offer of more money to the system. However, once the birthday celebrations have died down it is time for the debate to shift to greater investment in public health and social care. If not, our support for the NHS will come at a price and one that could ultimately impact directly on the object of our affections. 


Richard Duance

Comment date
28 November 2018

From my experience with the NHS and other health systems such as that in Germany, I believe additional funding is not necessarily the answer.

What the NHS requires are efficient and expedient processes as well as more capacity on key areas. As an example, why are nearly all testing departments in a hospital? In Germany, you go into a town where there are stand-alone facilities for MRI or Mammogram/Untrasound. You get debriefed by a doctor right after the test - no waiting for 6 weeks, lost results, retest etc in the NHS.

There needs to be a review tam that goes outside the UK and brings back the best practice from other countries. While "free at the point of delivery" is a great principle, having a health card that confirms your eligibility is a good thing. Also, we need to make clear that not everything can be covered. Even in Germany, I might have to supplement a prescription due to the fact it is not the generic form of the drug or that it is made from herbal type products.

The UK can keep the NHS but is requires a top to bottom review and set principles laid down with good efficient procedures that minimise the waste which we all know is there.

Lynda Banister

Former NHS Non-Exec, City Concillor etc.,
Comment date
10 July 2018

I feel rather ambivalent about the announcement of a new funding proposition for the NHS. It is still not as much as Simon Stevens asked for and comes with substantial strings attached. My biggest concern is that it does not directly address the biggest problem for the service which is the, often inappropriate, admissions of frail older people . They become the' long stayers' who lose capability while waiting for social care. I've heard the figure of some hospitals having 60% of their beds thus occupied to the detriment of the people concerned & other patients.
When I was active in the NHS some 15 years ago our small Trust did a lot of effective work to reduce this problem. The introduction of MAU, slicker discharge planning and good co-working with SSD really made a difference. A new care home was built by the Council on NHS land on a smaller district hospital site & occasionally we funded places in care homes on a limited time basis.
I'm both angry and sad to see how the situation has deteriorated ; it seems to be like a never ending 'groundhog day'. We must lay the responsibility it the refusal of successive governments to grasp the nettle of the ageing population. Money has been wasted on reports which are quietly buried because their recommendations are deemed to be unacceptable to the electorate. I'm no supporter of the Conservative party but May's attempt to at least start a dialogue were derided in a way that exposes the venality and cowardice of party politics.
As you say, the extent of people's ignorance about the social care system until they come up against its failings is really worrying. I'm also concerned about the way in which both health and social acre staff are effectively abused by a system which stretches many of them beyond their capacity to cope. I could go on.........but I'll leave it there!

Dr Umesh Prabhu

Was Medical Director for 14 years in two acute Trusts in NHS,
Edghill University
Comment date
06 July 2018

NHS is a great Institution and I am very proud of this great Institution and it does great job. Each year 360 million patient treatment episode and 1.3 Million staff work in NHS.

However each year approximately 20000 patients die and 55,000 patients suffer more than 6 months or permanently disabled and 80 to 90% these are preventable with good systems, process and good governance and excellent staff and patient engagement and support.

Demand on acute care is increasing and more and more patients are seen and admitted to hospitals and staff are working harder and harder. There is shortage of 10000 doctors and 30000 nurses and this has put lot of pressure on NHS staff.

NHS elective service is not at all efficient and not a good value for the money. NHS is also ill health based and sadly we do lot of unnecessary procedures in elderly patients with multiple comorbidity. Because of social services funding reduction, there have been dramatic cuts to social care beds and this had huge impact on NHS

Future is bright if we get leadership and culture right. In Wigan, we transformed the culture of bullying/pace setting to kind caring compassionate culture and learning and supportive culture and this transformed the Trust. Happy staff - happy patients is the mantra which was introduced and duty of candour was introduced successfully

Integration, investment in Primary care, community and social care and public health and skill mix and also digital transformation is the way to transform and integrate health and social care. If does properly this would save lot of money and we can transform health and social care and make them one of the safest and the best in the world.

As Albert Einstein said We can't solve the same problems by using same thinking which created it in the first place. Transformation needs transformational leaders with courage. Same old leaders doing the same old things will not transform NHS or social care.

tony wilson

retired volunteer,
Bristol Older People's Forum. Bristol Community Health
Comment date
06 July 2018

I don't buy the argument that we're too polite with the NHS and not so with commerce.
There is a full spectrum of attitudes. If you are going to use opinion, please make certain it is seen to be opinion/vox pop/rumour etc... not research. When in depth research has been undertaken and evaluated, then I think we will see the fallacy and perhaps some surprising truths around your argument.

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