As a respected doctor, Professor David Kerr of the Royal Bournemouth Hospital is amply qualified to give a diagnosis of America’s health care problems.
“Something must be wrong there because there are now 40 million uninsured Americans yet the US spends 18 per cent of its gross domestic product on healthcare,” he says.
Having lived in the USA, Prof Kerr, an endocrinologist specialising in diabetes, has seen both sides of transatlantic healthcare. He recently visited hospitals in New York and San Francisco to discuss how Bournemouth is successfully tackling the growing problem of Type-2 diabetes.
He’s so concerned at the low-level the debate is being carried out at that he’s even contacted the White House to offer the President or his aides the chance to visit Dorset. “I’ve suggested that the Obama campaign should speak to quality centres in the UK of the type we have here in Bournemouth and Poole and we can show them how to run a quality service, remaining in the black, which is available to all,” he said. “I’d be very pleased to explain to the president’s team how we do things over here.”
He accused US Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin of “scaremongering”. “I understand she’s suggested the NHS is evil and has spoken about ‘death panels’ which decide whether people live or die,” he said. “My experience of American healthcare is that they have a huge problem. I think it’s expensive, they don’t practise evidence-based healthcare to the extent that we do in Europe because the money is made by increasing the number of investigations and procedures. There are huge vested interests and that’s the problem.”
He believes it is “sad” that the Republicans and other American NHS detractors have “failed to do their research” and that they are using fear to exploit their position.
American Charles Elder, who works at Bournemouth University and is married to a Dorset GP, said: “Socialised medicine has negative connotations in the States. They think socialism, then communism. For a country founded on social welfare, all men created equal seems to have gone by the board.”
He remembers his father being hospitalised in the States for three months 30 years ago. “It cost a lot of money, but he was insured. We know families who aren’t in that situation.”
He has also seen his brother having to queue up at a window in hospital to make a payment for his thyroid cancer treatment. “The chances are people are dying because they are worried about the cost of medical treatment.”
Mr Elder has lived in Britain for the last 25 years and both his children were born here. “I have been treated very well by the NHS. I haven’t had a bad experience, apart from queuing now and then to have blood taken.
“It’s not a perfect organisation, but in terms of being able to provide healthcare for people who need it, it still works well. Healthcare should be a basic right, not a privilege.” Kathy Nicholson-Banks was sponsored by Rotary International 18 months ago to see for herself how the healthcare systems of the USA and Canada work.
Ms Nicholson-Banks, patient and public involvement manager for NHS Bournemouth and Poole, visited north Washington state. “The system is different in each state, but it’s mainly based on secondary care,” she said.
“My observation is that if people have got some money and can pay for private health insurance, they’re going to be fine. In this country, we have a welfare system. If you fall on bad times and get ill, you know you can be treated without having to worry about having a credit card or money in your pocket.”
Ms Nicholson, a former nurse, pointed out that many people’s health insurance in the States was paid through their work, leaving them vulnerable if they became unemployed.
“I met a woman over there who’d had a highly-paid job. Six weeks after losing her job, she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She was begging on the streets to raise money for treatment.”
She also believes the UK is “way ahead of the game” in preventative medicine. “It’s big business in the US to have people in hospital. In this country, we’re trying to keep people as healthy as possible. We’ve come a long way over the last 10-15 years. As far as I could see, our system is second to none.”
Dr Ros Maycock, who has been a GP in Poole for 25 years, said: “We have universal coverage, free at the point of access. We have a huge amount of information around the needs of our population and we are trying to supply a service which will actually make people healthier. It’s about best value and best quality for all patients.
“In the States, the service for the people who buy it is exemplary, although they do huge numbers of investigations and go for every single treatment under the sun. They’re looking at providing the best possible care for the people who can afford it.
“Because we don’t have an endless pot of money, we have to prioritise according to the needs of everyone. Some of the most effective interventions are by GPs saying to people: ‘Do you know what you’re doing to yourself?’ “Not everyone who has a pain in the chest is having a heart attack, but if they were in the States, they’d probably be taken into coronary care. It means everyone is paranoid. We’re not perfect, but I think the NHS is a wonderful institution.”
On the streets of Bournemouth, however, views were more mixed. Colin Phillips, of Holdenhurst Village says he “loves” the NHS. “I had great care last year for a heart operation, I was treated at Southampton and in Bournemouth and I’m still here so I’m very happy.”
However, he cautioned against wholesale criticism of the US system. “I understand from reading a piece in The Times that care over there can be much more generous than we are lead to believe.”
Big Issue seller Nigel Buchan praised the NHS but had concerns, too. “I do use the NHS, of course I do,” he said. “I’ve always been treated well but I think you have to wait quite a bit. For instance, when you go to the doctor’s you always have to wait longer than they say. And I don’t like the system where you have to call at 8.30am to get an appointment. Usually you want to talk to the doctor about something that isn’t an emergency but it can be hard to book ahead.”
Student Katy Stafford, on holiday from London, said she had no criticism of the NHS but partly that was because “I don’t really have to use it that much”.
However, one woman, who asked to be described as “a worker at Poole hospital” was more forthright. “How dare the Americans criticise? Most Americans have never been outside the USA – and Sarah Palin calling our NHS evil only makes her seem more ignorant that ever. The truth is nothing like they’ve been saying but sadly, most of them will never hear it.”
Joanna Codd & Faith Eckersall
Bournemouth Daily Echo