UK spends more on health but comes up short compared with other countries – OECD

The UK has fewer MRI, CT and PET scanners compared with most of the other countries examined in the OECD’s Health at a Glance report.

Ella Pickover
Tuesday 07 November 2023 17:38 GMT
In the UK, Switzerland, Finland and Latvia, nurses were paid less than the average worker, a report from the OECD said (Jeff Moore/PA)
In the UK, Switzerland, Finland and Latvia, nurses were paid less than the average worker, a report from the OECD said (Jeff Moore/PA)

The UK spends more on healthcare than comparable countries but has fewer hospital beds and diagnostic tools and pays nurses less, according to a report.

Compared with other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, the UK spends a higher than average proportion of GDP on “health system resources” – spending around 11.3% of its GDP on health in 2022.

Only five countries – the US, Germany, France, Japan and Austria – spend a greater proportion, according to the OECD report.

But despite being one of the biggest spenders, the UK does not rank favourably on a number of healthcare measures, the report suggests.

The NHS is spending the money but not in the right places, like billions on agencies rather than valuing permanent staff

Prof Nicola Ranger, RCN

For instance, across the countries studied by the OECD, there were on average 4.3 hospital beds for every 1,000 people in the population in 2021.

But in the UK it was 2.4 beds for every 1,000 people, with just Mexico, Costa Rica, Columbia, Chile and Sweden reporting fewer beds.

It also has fewer MRI, CT and PET scanners compared with most of the other countries examined in the OECD’s Health at a Glance report.

The report also touches on nursing pay, saying that on average across OECD countries, the remuneration of hospital nurses in 2021 was 20% above the average wage of all employees.

But in the UK, Switzerland, Finland and Latvia, nurses made less than the average worker, the OECD said.

Commenting on the report, Professor Nicola Ranger, chief nurse at the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), said: “Politicians should see this as an indictment. On the day the government will only give the NHS a passing reference in the King’s speech, the UK is being shown up.

“The NHS is spending the money but not in the right places, like billions on agencies rather than valuing permanent staff.

“These figures on salaries show our governments don’t value nursing, relative to other professions and explain why we’ve got record unfilled jobs. Patients pay the highest price for this unsafe system.”

Meanwhile, the new OECD health league tables also show that adults in the UK are some of the heaviest drinkers.

More than a third (35%) of adults across the UK report binge drinking at least once a month and only Romania and Denmark have worse heavy drinking rates.

Across the 33 countries studied, the average proportion of adults who said they were heavy drinkers at least once a month was 19%. This ranged from just 3% in Turkey to 37% in Denmark.

Dr Richard Piper, chief executive of Alcohol Change UK, said: “Alcohol causes too much harm here in the UK. But this is totally avoidable.

“There is an overwhelming need for the Government to introduce measures that we know will reduce alcohol harm and save lives such as proper controls on alcohol marketing, introducing minimum unit pricing in England like we already have in Scotland and Wales, and clearer alcohol labelling.”

Amid the increasing demand for services as a result of the combined effect of population ageing and unhealthy lifestyles, health systems need to facilitate better and timelier access to affordable health care, while addressing the lingering after-effects of Covid-19 on mental and physical health

Mathias Cormann, OECD

The OECD report also shows there are more obese adults in the UK compared with the OECD average.

Obesity prevalence was 28% in the UK – higher than the OECD average of 25.7%.

The report also found adults in the UK were more likely to report vaping compared with other countries, but have lower than average smoking rates.

Just 12.7% are current smokers in the UK, compared with an OECD average of 16%.

But almost one in 20 adults (4.9%) said they vaped regularly, compared with an average of 3.2%.

The UK does compare favourably with other OECD countries on some measures including deaths after a stroke, air pollution deaths, avoidable admissions for heart failure and the proportion of older adults who usually receive the flu jab.

OECD secretary general Mathias Cormann said: “Amid the increasing demand for services as a result of the combined effect of population ageing and unhealthy lifestyles, health systems need to facilitate better and timelier access to affordable health care, while addressing the lingering after-effects of Covid-19 on mental and physical health.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “This report uses data from 2021 and since then we have made significant progress to boost bed numbers and diagnostic capacity.

“The NHS has met its target to roll out 10,000 hospital at home beds ahead of winter and is also delivering 5,000 more permanent hospital beds.

“We will also meet our target to open 160 community diagnostic centres a year early, as a result of the largest central cash investment in MRI and CT scanning capacity in the history of the NHS.

“Over one million staff including nurses have received a 5% pay rise for 2023-24 alongside two one-off payments, this is on top of a pay rise worth 5.5% for newly qualified nurses in 2022-23.

“The report also highlights the UK’s strengths, including significantly reducing deaths from air pollution, achieving high rates of screening for breast and cervical cancer, and vaccinating a high proportion of the elderly against influenza compared to other OECD countries.”

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