PORTADOWN, NORTHERN IRELAND -- For the past month I have watched British media report and comment on the American health care uproar. American cable networks are also available here. The back-and-forth reporting and commentary resembles a replay of the War of 1812, this time with verbal salvos. Conservative American politicians and commentators fire at the British NHS system and the British fire back, sometimes on the same program, repeating the Democrats' mantra of how 47 million Americans are "uninsured" and how medical treatment in the United States depends on how much patients, or their insurance companies, will pay. Here, they say, health care is "free," thanks to taxpayers, a minority of which (i.e. the successful) bears ever-greater amounts of the burden.
A conservative British politician trashes the NHS on Fox News and the BBC carries an excerpt, along with a defense of the NHS by other British politicians, including Tory leader -- and prime minister in waiting -- David Cameron. In an apparent effort to outflank the critically ill Labour Party, Cameron promises to strengthen the NHS.
The British media are conflicted. They patriotically defend the NHS, while simultaneously acknowledging its serious shortcomings. One example: A recent Daily Mail editorial praised the NHS for its free care and universal availability, but then added, "Our survival rates for breast, prostate, ovarian and lung cancers are among the worst in Europe, despite huge additional expenditures." Free is nice, but best is better.
Beyond the headlines are some disturbing trends within the NHS that ought to serve as a warning to Americans, should they wish to abandon, rather than improve, our current system for treating the sick.
Last week, a London Times story began: "Hospitals Creaking Under the Strain as NHS Vacancies Are Left Unfilled."
The story reported that socialized medicine has created a shortage of doctors, nurses and other clinical staff. As of March 31, a survey found a 5.2 percent vacancy rate in these critical fields, compared to a 3.6 percent vacancy rate a year earlier. According to the Times, "Qualified nurses and midwives are retiring at a greater rate than newly trained staff can enter the professions." A poll conducted by the Royal College of Nurses found that among 8,600 young people, aged 7 to 17, "only 1 in 20 considered nursing to be an attractive career."