The NHS is under a legal and moral obligation to provide services to all people who need them, regardless of their gender, age or ethnic background.
The Labour government has begun to implement a far-reaching set of reforms designed to put patients at the heart of the NHS and make providers of services far more responsive to their individual needs, using a system of powerful financial incentives.
As a public body, the NHS is also bound by the terms of the Race Relations Amendment Act 2000, which obliges all NHS institutions to promote race equality across all their activities, including service provision.
So, how effective is the NHS in providing accessible health care for all Britons, regardless of their ethnic or religious background?
The King's Fund is embarking on a new programme of work that aims to investigate how much progress NHS institutions have made on improving access to health care, which interventions appear to have worked, and what the barriers to progress appear to be.
This is the first in a series of briefings, designed to set out some of the background to the issues outlined above.