Health

UK 'fares badly in European health league table'

  • 5 March 2013
  • From the section Health
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Composite image of drinking, eating and smoking

The UK is lagging behind progress by similar countries on many indicators for ill-health, research suggests.

Health data over 20 years was compared with figures from 18 other countries in the research published in the Lancet.

Although average life expectancy has risen by four years since 1990, it says the UK needs to increase its strategies for tackling preventable problems such as heart disease and stroke.

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt has said he has a plan to address the lag.

The team of experts from the UK and the University of Washington in Seattle said the UK had a high burden of smoking-related illnesses, and greater priority should be given to reducing lung disease.

There was also a large rise in the number of recorded deaths related to Alzheimer's Disease.

Many deaths happen because the NHS is not good enough at preventing people getting sick or because treatment does not rival that seen elsewhere in Europe, says Mr Hunt who is responsible for health policy in England.

'Take up challenge'

He says up to 30,000 lives a year could be saved if England performed as well as its European neighbours.

Mr Hunt has announced plans to cut the death toll caused by the UK's five avoidable big killers - cancer, heart, stroke, respiratory and liver disease.

He said: "For too long we have been lagging behind and I want the reformed health system to take up this challenge and turn this shocking underperformance around."

He wants more people to go for regular health checks to spot diseases earlier and he is calling better joining up of NHS services so that patients don't get lost in the system.

In the 20 years from 1990 to 2010 that The Lancet study examined, average life expectancy increased by 4.2 years in the UK to 79.9 years.

But the premature death rate had hardly changed in the UK for both men and women aged 20-54.

Among the leading causes were heart disease, cancers and chronic lung disease.

These are linked to avoidable risk factors such as smoking, high blood pressure and obesity, which are still all too common in the UK, say Chris Murray, from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, University of Washington, USA, and colleagues who carried out the analysis of global data.

But progress is being made on conditions like diabetes, where the UK appears to be ahead of many of its European neighbours and other high-income countries like the US and Canada.

'Bold action'

Prof Murray says the UK also faces fresh challenges, like its growing burden of disability from alcohol use and a 137% rise in deaths linked to Alzheimer's disease.

He and his team also acknowledged that making firm conclusions based on data from different countries was inherently problematic - not all record the same information and each has its own unique issues and policies that made interpretation and comparison difficult.

Recent figures from the Office for National Statistics suggested people in the UK were living in good health for longer.

But the UK still measures up poorly compared with other countries - it ranked 12 out of the 19 countries in the Lancet study.

Britons have 68.6 years of healthy life, whereas people in top-ranked country, Spain, have 70.9 years of healthy life on average.

In an accompanying editorial in The Lancet, Edmund Jessop from the UK Faculty of Public Health in London said the UK had done very well in many areas of public health - it had stronger tobacco control than any other country in Europe, for example - but there was still "plenty of room for bold action by politicians".

Public Health England, a new division of the Department of Health that will come into being in April 2013 along with the NHS organisational reforms, called the report a wake-up call.

Prof John Newton, chief knowledge officer of Public Health England, said: "Despite some enviable recent success, for example on smoking, we in the UK need to take a hard look at what can be done to help people in the UK achieve the levels of health already enjoyed by other some countries. Central and local government, charities, employers and retail businesses all have a part to play."

John Appleby, chief economist at The King's Fund, said: "Changes in health outcomes take place over many years, if not generations. The UK's health expenditure has increased significantly but has only recently caught up with the EU average so we may not yet be seeing the full effects of this additional spending."

Shadow Health Minister Andrew Gwynne said the findings show how the current government is failing patients and the NHS.

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