Daniel J. Mitchell

During the Obamacare debate, Paul Krugman told us we could ignore stories about what was happening across the ocean, writing that “In Britain, the government itself runs the hospitals and employs the doctors. We’ve all heard scare stories about how that works in practice; these stories are false.”

Every so often, I wonder how Krugman would define a “scare story.” How about starving babies to death, as I wrote about last month? Would he say that’s “false,” or simply not a “scare story”?

Let’s look at some new information from the U.K.’s government-run system and see whether we can expect our healthcare to improve or deteriorate now that Obamacare’s beginning to get implemented.

We’ll start with a look at how the overall British system is performing, including the remarkable and depressing fact that more than 1 in 10 patients are victimized by “basic errors,” leading to 5.2 percent of deaths.

The largest and most detailed survey into hospital deaths has revealed that almost 12,000 patients are needlessly dying every year as a result of poor patient care. The researchers from The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine based the study on 1,000 deaths at 10 NHS trusts during 2009. The study revealed that basic errors were made in more than one in 10 cases, leading to 5.2% of deaths, which was the equivalent of nearly 12,000 preventable deaths in hospitals in England every year. The research published in the British Medical Journal’s Quality and Safety publication found that errors occurred when hospital staff made an incorrect diagnosis, prescribed the wrong drugs, failed to monitor a patient’s condition or react when a patient deteriorated. Errors in omission were more frequent than active mistakes. The majority of patients who died were elderly suffering with multiple health conditions, but the study found that some patients whose deaths were preventable were aged in their 30s and 40s.

Now let’s look at healthcare – if you use the term loosely – at one Government-run hospital. The UK-based Telegraph has the stomach-turning details.

Hundreds of hospital patients died needlessly. In the wards, people lay starving, thirsty and in soiled bedclothes, buzzers droning hopelessly as their cries for help went ignored. Some received the wrong medication; some, none at all.Over 139 days, the public inquiry into the Stafford hospital scandal has heard testimony from scores of witnesses about how an institution which was supposed to care for the most vulnerable instead became a place of danger. Decisions about which patients to treat were left to receptionists…and nurses switched off equipment because they did not know how to use it. …patients were left so dehydrated that some began drinking from flower vases. By the time the hospital’s failings were exposed by regulators, in 2009, up to 1,200 patients had died needlessly between 2005 and 2008. …on the wards, patients – most of them elderly – were left in agony and screaming for pain relief, as their loved ones desperately begged for help. The human toll was dreadful. In the course of 18 months, one family lost four members, including a newborn baby girl, after a catalogue of failings by the hospital. …Patients were left without medication, food and drink, and left on commodes. Basic hygiene was neglected: a woman was left unwashed for the last four weeks of her life. Relatives tried to keep their loved ones clean, scrubbing down beds and furniture and even bringing in clean linen. One consultant described how amid the chaos, it seemed at though nurses became “immune to the sound of pain”.

It’s disturbing to read something like this, but can you imagine the horror of having a sick child in one of these wretched British institutions?

I’m not saying there aren’t mistakes and instances of sub-standard care in U.S. hospitals. I’m sure that’s the case. And regular readers know that I’ve complained about the absurd government-caused inefficiency of the American healthcare system.

The point I’m making is that horror stories are more common from the U.K. because the entire system is a bureaucracy. The nurses and doctors on that side of the Atlantic are akin to clerks at the Postal Service and DMV on this side of the Atlantic.

P.S. If you want more horror stories about government-run healthcare in the United Kingdom click here, here, here, here, herehereherehereherehereherehere, here and here.

P.P.S. And to close on an upbeat note, click here to learn how we can save America’s healthcare system.


Daniel J. Mitchell

Daniel J. Mitchell is a top expert on tax reform and supply-side tax policy at the Cato Institute.