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Spending on and availability of health care resources: how does the UK compare to other countries?

By May 14, 2020National News

From the King’s Fund

The announcement by the Prime Minister to bring forward a new long-term funding settlement for the NHS means it is timely to look at how health spending in the UK compares to other countries and how the NHS measures up on some of the key resources this spending pays for.

Although it can be difficult to find data on health care resources on a comparable basis across countries, international comparisons can still provide useful context for the debate about how much funding the NHS might need in future.

In this briefing, The King’s Fund focus specifically on a small number of key resources – staff, beds, equipment and medicines – using data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). They also update their analysis of how much the UK spends on health care under the new System of Health Accounts 2011 methodology, (opens in a new tab) which has led to substantial changes in what is classed as ‘health care spending’.

Key messages

  • Although data limitations mean that comparisons between countries should be treated with caution, international data provides valuable insight into key areas of expenditure and useful context for the debate about NHS funding.
  • Analysis of health care spending in 21 countries shows that the UK has fewer doctors and nurses per head of population than almost all the other countries looked at. Only Poland has fewer of both.
  • The UK has fewer magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT) scanners in relation to its population than any of the countries we analysed. Although this data should be treated with particular caution, it is clear that the UK lags a long way behind other high-performing health systems in investing in these important technologies.
  • Of the countries looked at, only Denmark and Sweden have fewer hospital beds per head of population than the UK, while the UK also has fewer beds in residential care settings than comparator countries. While lower numbers of hospital beds can be a sign of efficiency, the growing shortage of beds in UK hospitals indicates that bed reductions in the NHS may have gone too far.
  • Although costs are rising, the UK spends less on medicines than most of the countries analysed. A key reason for this is the success of initiatives to improve the value of expenditure on medicines, such as encouraging the use of generic drugs.
  • Under the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)’s new definition of health spending, the UK spends 9.7% of gross domestic product (GDP) on health care. This in line with the average among the countries the King’s Fund looked at but is significantly less than countries such as Germany, France and Sweden, which spend at least 11% of their GDP on health care.
  • The picture that emerges from this analysis is that the NHS is under-resourced compared to other countries and lags a long way behind other high-performing health systems in many key areas of health care resources.

To read the full briefing  go to the King’s Fund(open in a new tab)

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