Monday 24 October 2016 6:45 pm

We'll never have a better health system unless we're brutally honest about the NHS's failings

It was heart-rending to witness. Back in January, sitting at my grandmother’s hospital bedside, a new patient entered the ward. Her name was Anita Richardson, a 42 year-old grandmother from Rochester.

Visibly frail and frightened, Anita and her family explained how she’d been visiting her GP frequently over the previous 10 months, complaining of shoulder then back pain. She had been told her condition could be a rotator cuff injury, or the way she laid in bed. Once, the doctor told her the pain “was all in her head”. But that morning she had woken up paralysed. Fearing the worst, her family had rushed her to hospital and she was given scans and tests.

As a team of doctors entered the ward, pulling the thin curtain around her bedside to offer a slither of privacy, her family fell silent. Shortly after came the heartbreaking sound of uncontrollable grief. Cancer had spread to her spine, and Anita was told she had just a few months to live. A mixture of outright anger and powerless agony gripped her family. At that moment, it became painfully clear to me that behind every statistic about health outcomes and misdiagnosis lies a harrowing human story.

Look carefully, and there are similar tales in newspapers each week. When one witnesses first hand something like this, it’s difficult to accept the saying that the “plural of anecdote is not data”. Yet a cold, hard look at the effectiveness of our health system requires just that. The NHS should not be judged by the worst cases, but neither should anecdotes about “the NHS saving my grandad” or “my baby was delivered by the NHS” blind us from expecting our health system to deliver high standards for both care and treatment. We should not accept the implied poverty of ambition that comes from comparing outcomes now to when the NHS was founded, or against a counterfactual of no healthcare at all.

The sad truth is that, on most measures of healthcare outcomes, the NHS lags behind other countries. This has been brutally laid bare in a new report by my colleague Dr Kristian Niemietz for UK2020. While prevalence of diseases and recovery can differ across countries for a range of reasons unassociated with the quality of the health system (socio-economic factors or lifestyles, for example), a package of studies and indicators can give us broad insights.

The results are striking. If the NHS could raise its standards to those of just the twelfth best country across a range of indicators, many lives could be spared. If breast cancer outcomes were the same as in Belgium, 2,504 lives would be saved each year; if bowel cancer outcomes were the same as the Netherlands, a further 3,264 people per year would not die. Similar needless deaths are seen for prostate and lung cancer, while around 3,000 lives per year could be saved if British stroke patients were treated in Switzerland rather than here.

A couple of thousand here, a few thousand there, pretty soon you are talking significant numbers. There are areas where the NHS performs comparatively better, of course – oral cancer in particular. But the overall pattern is clear. Measures of “mortality amenable to healthcare” – premature deaths that could have been avoided with timelier or better healthcare – suggest that 5,594 people die each year unnecessarily. In other words, mothers, fathers, grandparents, sisters and brothers are dying through access to sub-standard or untimely treatment.

We are not even talking about comparisons with the best outcomes in the world. Yet where are the howls of outrage? Whether it’s because few ever experience other systems or the public values the intentions of the NHS, or because saying it is taken as an implied slight against the quality of our tireless health professionals, highlighting systematic poor outcomes is just not done.

Instead, we cling to the comfort of studies like that of the Commonwealth Fund which tell us we have the best system in the world because they examine inputs and procedures rather than outcomes. We blithely ignore the fact that a write-up of the same study, with no hint of irony, said: “the only serious black mark against the NHS was its poor record on keeping people alive.” The only international comparison cited tends to be that showing we spend less on healthcare than other countries, ignoring evidence that the money we do spend is used so inefficiently to delude ourselves we simply have a resource problem.

It’s time to face the evidence. Our healthcare outcomes are unacceptable. We have much to learn from other countries. But until we recognise there’s a major problem, we will merely continue our parochial NHS worship, with unnecessary bereavements the result.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.