In October 2007, Balram Pyasi, a freelance Nepali journalist, was staying with his friends in North London, when he suddenly felt burning and pain in his chest. As his pain intensified, his friends dialled the emergency number 999. Within five minutes, an ambulance arrived with three health personnel and emergency health equipment.
The ambulance reached the Royal Brompton and Harefield hospital, some 40 kilometres away from his residence, in about 15 minutes. He was rushed to the Operation Theatre where senior doctors were waiting for an emergency cardiac operation on him.
After the operation, a senior doctor at the hospital told him, “The capillary through which blood circulates in your heart was blocked; now it has opened up after the surgery.’
Two days after he was discharged from the hospital, Pyasi received a bill from the hospital amounting to £6,593 (around Rs 850,000). “As you are not a permanent resident of United Kingdom but a tourist, the National Insurance regulation does not apply to you, therefore you will have to pay for your treatment, according to your capacity on instalment basis,” the letter said.
“The NHS saved my life. If I had had stroke in Kathmandu, I am not sure if I could ever make it to the hospital,” said Pyasi, who returned to Kathmandu later that year. After a few days, he visited the Gangalal Heart Care hospital at Bansbari with his medical records. A doctor on duty gave a cursory look at his prescriptions, asked him to continue his medicines and called another patient in barely two minutes. “I felt very bad. There was no way I could compare the quality of care and services which I received in the UK (with that in my own country),” he added.
‘Jewel in the Crown’
Not only foreigners like Pyasi, an overwhelming number of British people see their state-run health provider not only as a service but also as a symbol. Obviously, reforming NHS was a major plank in the parliamentary elections in UK last year. While proposing to cut millions of pounds from different departments, Prime Minister David Cameron said that he would ring-fence the budget of the NHS. “When Tony Blair was elected in 1997, he said his top three priorities would be Education, Education and Education. My top priority can be described in three letters, N-H-S,” declared Cameron.
Introduced more than six decades ago, NHS is the publicly-funded health care system in England, which provides healthcare to anyone normally resident in England or any other part of the United Kingdom with most services free at the point of use for the patient. However, patients have to pay separately to procure services like eye tests, dental care, prescriptions, and many aspects of personal care.
During the 13 years of Labour government (1997-2010), deaths from cancer, strokes and heart attacks fell substantially. Mental health, access to drugs, infant mortality, life expectancy and access to General Practitioners (GPs) also improved. The NHS budget tripled to 105 billion pounds during the period.
The NHS has, however, seen its ups and downs. “In 1997, the National Health Service was in a state of disrepair. Hospitals were falling apart, more than a million patients were on waiting lists, there were too few staff and care varied widely in quality,” said The King’s Fund—a London-based think tank—in its report published last year.