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COVID-19 has changed socialized medicine in Britain forever

21 9 0

Socialized medicine did not, as some predicted, collapse during COVID-19. Britain’s National Health Service was stretched to the limit but never overwhelmed. It’s the current phase of the pandemic that’s proving to be the bigger stress test.

The system is facing gargantuan backlogs across all areas, with the number of people waiting for treatment approaching 6 million. Patients suffering crippling arthritis must wait years for hip replacements or ankle surgeries in some cases. Hospitals are already at peak winter bed occupancy levels. Referrals for cancer screening have dropped worryingly. Burnout rates among Britain’s doctors and nurses have reached emergency levels. And don’t even mention the flu.

So how did the U.K. make it through the past 20 months of COVID-19? One key element needs to be acknowledged: the private sector’s role in delivering publicly funded care.

In a country where the NHS is regarded as a religion, there is something faintly blasphemous about "private” health care. Roughly 10% of Brits have some kind of private insurance, though they tend to be mainly in London or the south. Private hospitals, the caricature goes, serve the wealthy few, rely on doctors trained and employed by taxpayers, and specialize in high-volume, high-margin procedures, leaving the tougher cases to the cost-laden NHS.

This "us versus them” narrative doesn’t serve the country’s health needs or those who provide care. But, whisper it, the pandemic may finally be changing these perceptions. More than ever before, public and private have been working together. That should help with tackling the challenges piling up on the NHS, but it will also lead to some uncomfortable conversations about the terms and limits of that partnership.

Creeping privatization

Ever since the Labour government of the mid-2000s sought to introduce more competition and choice into health care, the NHS has spent a portion of its budget paying private companies to provide mainly routine services, ranging from diagnostics to cataract surgeries to hip replacements. NHS purchasing of acute medical care in the private sector increased nearly sixfold between 2003 and 2019, according to health consultancy LaingBuisson’s estimates in a recent report. NHS........

© The Japan Times

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