Britain's healthcare system trails the rest of Europe in a number of crucial areas, including female mortality, cancer survival rates, and levels of obesity, according to a study produced for the Government.
Women in the UK are dying years before they should; our death rate from respiratory diseases is more than twice as high as France; and we could save 10,000 lives each year if our cancer treatment matched the best European standards. As well as female life expectancy, Britain fares worse than EU averages on infant mortality, cardiovascular, liver and respiratory diseases, and survival rates for cervical, breast and colorectal cancer.
A briefing for ministers pushing through the coalition's controversial health reforms outlines a bleak assessment of the NHS's performance in comparison with the 15 oldest members of the EU.
The document, "International Comparisons for Health and Social Care Outcomes", sets out the UK's performance under 34 headings, covering death rates, deadly diseases, patient care, and lifestyle issues including smoking and drinking.
It identifies 19 areas where the UK performed worse than the average of the EU-15 member states; in many, the standard is deteriorating still further. The report says female life expectancy in the UK is lower than across the EU-15. The latest figures show Britain is in the bottom two countries for "amenable mortality", measured as "premature deaths that should not occur in the presence of effective and timely healthcare".
The premature mortality rate from all respiratory diseases – 11.6 per 100,000 of the population – is "more than twice as high as in France or Sweden, and considerably higher than the EU-15 average". The key figure for "potential years of life lost" by people who would have lived longer with better health, is put at 3,353 years per 100,000 population, far ahead of all compared countries.
There is some good news: the briefing identifies the UK's performance as better than average for patient experience and care for mental illness.
Critics of the report last night complained that the figures gave the misleading impression of "a broken NHS that is on its knees" – and said it should not be used as cover to justify the Government's reform programme.
Howard Catton, the Royal College of Nursing's head of policy, said: "The biggest risk the NHS currently faces is that the seismic scale of the reforms it is being asked to make will become a major distraction that hinders rather than helps the NHS."
Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, has been criticised for his use of statistics in the Health and Social Care Act. Last year, the British Medical Association responded to claims in the NHS White Paper about Britain's poor performance by pointing out that "international comparisons are difficult to quantify, sometimes simply due to concepts of illness and different cultures of diagnosis".
The Government briefing, produced as the Bill progressed through Parliament last autumn, uses data gathered from the EU-15 countries between 2007 and 2011. Its authors said it should not be used to rank health systems, or make "definitive judgements about healthcare standards". They also said it should be used for "highlighting differences in outcomes and raising questions about the quality of care in different countries."
Professor Richard Lilford, an expert in public health at Birmingham University, said the collection of international comparisons "cannot bear the inference that it contributes to any argument for healthcare reform", pointing to recent improvements in services and patient experiences.
He added: "None of this means that the service changes are necessarily a bad thing, merely that they should not be justified on the basis of these international comparisons."
A Department of Health spokesman said the report offered "further evidence of the need to modernise the NHS". He added: "It clearly shows the NHS is doing well in some areas, but it is still lagging behind in others."