THE Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released Health at a glance 2021 on 9 November. The annual report provides the latest comparable data and trends on the performance of health systems in OECD countries and key emerging economies.

This year’s report finds that the pandemic has underlined the need for countries to strengthen the resilience of their health systems, and highlighted a persistent shortage of health workers.

Commenting on the report’s findings on the UK, Dr Jennifer Dixon, Chief Executive for the Health Foundation, said: “The OECD’s findings about the UK are unsurprising. The UK entered the pandemic in a vulnerable position, both in terms of systemic weaknesses in the health care system and poor underlying population health.

“Today’s report shows that per capita health expenditure in the UK in 2019 was significantly lower than in many other Western European countries, including France, the Netherlands and Germany. Underinvestment in the NHS over many years has resulted in fewer doctors, nurses, beds and scanners relative to our European neighbours. These weaknesses reduced the health and social care system’s resilience to a shock like the pandemic. They will also affect how quickly services can recover.

“Despite relative underinvestment, the OECD report shows that the NHS compares well with other health systems on some key measures of health care quality, such as breast cancer screening and diabetes care. But more progress is needed in other areas, such as heart disease and some cancers.

“Our analysis suggests that, while welcome, the recently announced extra funding for recovering services in the wake of the pandemic will not be enough to address the scale of the challenge. Further investment will be needed to return the NHS to pre-pandemic performance, let alone provide a health care system that is resilient enough to withstand future crises. Health Foundation analysis also shows the significant extra investment needed in social care, and to address workforce shortages in the sector.

“Prior to the pandemic, the UK had experienced stalling life expectancy over the last decade. Covid-19 has highlighted the extent of poor underlying health in the UK, which contributed to the higher excess deaths we have seen during the pandemic compared to the rest of Europe. Deaths from Covid-19 were nearly four times higher in the most deprived areas of the UK than in the least deprived areas for the working-age population. The government must now ensure that it puts the nation’s health at the heart of the pandemic recovery. It has promised to level up the country but levelling up health must be central to its plans.”

Also commenting on the report, Veena Raleigh, Senior Fellow at The King’s Fund said: “The huge pressures on health and care systems, and the tragic impact on people’s health, resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic have been seen globally. The UK is not alone in experiencing a devastating death toll that has had an unequal impact across different communities, and a mounting backlog of care due to the disruption to health services.

“However, while the impact of the pandemic is still playing out, so far the UK compares poorly with other advanced nations. Excess deaths in the United Kingdom from January 2020 to June 2021 were higher than in most West European and high-income countries, behind only Spain, Portugal, Italy and the United States. While life expectancy fell in 2020 in all but a handful of OECD countries, the greatest falls were in Spain, Italy, Belgium, the United States and the United Kingdom. The outlook suggests the United Kingdom is unlikely to improve its comparatively poor standing on life expectancy.

“The OECD report shows a mixed picture for the quality of UK health care. While it performs well on some measures including flu vaccination, breast cancer screening and diabetes care, we continue to lag behind on obesity, heart disease and cancer mortality.  
“Although health spending rose sharply in response to the pandemic, historically spending in the UK on health care services, staffing and infrastructure has been lower than in many comparable countries. As a result, the NHS is further on the back foot than most advanced health systems in coping with the pandemic’s legacy, which includes an exhausted workforce, a large and growing backlog of care and widening health inequalities.”

* Explore the report by country and by theme, or download the full report here.

* Read some of the UK-specific findings of the report here.

* Sources OECD, The King’s Fund and The Health Foundation