Comparing apples to apples: NHS still ranks below average


Most healthcare reporting is deeply biased. From blogs to papers to policy, most people have strong preferences for different kinds of healthcare systems that they believe to be ‘the best’, often based on what they view the role of the state to be. Obviously some beliefs are grounded in more facts and stats than others, but given how complicated healthcare systems are, it’s possible to come up with all different kinds of conclusions that appear, at least on the surface, like they’re grounded in fact. Compare, for example, The Commonwealth Fund 2014 report to the 2014 European Health Consumer Index: two studies that compare international healthcare systems. Both published within one year of each other, The Commonwealth Fund ranked the NHS the best healthcare system out of 11 countries, while the EHCI threw it down the list, ranking it 14th after all your obvious competitors, including The Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, but also after your less obvious contenders, like Portugal.

Both reports appear to be thoroughly researched and have lots of numbers to back them up. So who do you believe? Well, if you favour single-payer health systems, you're probably going favour the Commonwealth Fund's report, which inherently favours centralised systems. (For example: out-of-pocket costs and insurer rejection of full cost reimbursement were considered a black mark against a healthcare system, regardless of access to treatment.) If you rank results higher than the principles around who delivers healthcare or who makes a profit, you're probably going to favour the EHCI's report, that gives more weight to things like waiting lists.

I personally give more credit to the EHCI report because my primary concern when it comes to healthcare systems is patient outcomes. That’s my bias.

Which is why the OECD’s healthcare efficiency reports are so important. The OECD’s stance is that “there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to reforming health care systems. Policymakers should aim for coherence in policy settings by adopting best practices from the many different health care systems that exist in the OECD and tailor them to suit actual circumstances.” So while the OECD does make some comparisons of countries across the board, it also intentionally group countries together based on different kinds of healthcare systems in order to compare like with like.

Specifically, they break countries down into six groups to compare the efficiencies of similar healthcare institutions to each other, in an attempt to identify where the most improvement can be made within specific systems:

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The UK falls into Group 6, which is characterised as:

Mostly public insurance. Health care is mainly provided by a heavily regulated public system, with strict gate-keeping, little decentralisation and a tight spending limit imposed via the budget process

Seven countries fall into this category: Hungary, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, and the UK. The OECD uses nifty radar charts (click on links) to illustrate how each country compares to both the OECD average as well as Group 6’s average in different areas including efficiency and quality, amenable mortality, prices, resources, consumption, financing and policy. The final chart ranks each country’s to measure its comparative efficiency. The results:

High DEA Score: Norway, Italy Above Average: Poland Average: New Zealand Below Average: UK Low: Hungary, Ireland

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The OECD’s analysis: “The quantity and quality of health care services (in the UK) remain lower than the OECD average while compensation levels are higher. Reinforcing competitive pressures on providers could help mitigate price pressures, e.g. by increasing user choice further and reforming compensation systems.”

On Tuesday I noted that the UK is one of the OECD countries that could do the most to improve its efficiency in public healthcare spending . But breaking that down even further, the UK doesn’t come close to topping the charts in its own group.

Perhaps the UK should be looking to make improvements to resemble Norway, which tops the ranks for public health services. Or maybe it should be looking towards other categories that focus on social insurance systems. Either way, it's time for the UK to start looking beyond the NHS.