NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

The Long, Long Wait For Health Care In Britain

April 19, 1999

Britons have long known that there is a waiting list for health care maintained by the country's National Health Service. But they are now becoming aware that there is an unofficial waiting list they must first get on in order eventually to be entered on the official waiting list -- a phenomenon that the government tries to avoid discussing.

While the official list is being pared down, the unofficial list is growing sharply.

  • The typical Britain in need of an operation might wait about 18 months for an appointment to be examined by a specialist -- then another year until the actual operation.
  • As of March 1997, there were 247,500 on the unofficial waiting list -- which by the end of 1998 had grown to 468,000.
  • To reduce the official tally of those waiting for care, the socialized medical system uses such tricks as giving priority to minor operations that can be disposed of more quickly, canceling treatment or transferring patients to different specialists so they have to start the wait all over again, or spending huge amounts of money to have waiting-list patients treated in private hospitals.
  • Experts say the waiting-list ploy is the system's way of rationing care.

Doctors complain that it is immoral to concentrate on relatively minor operations in order to make the numbers look better -- while delaying care for those in pain and truly in need of attention. But they cite it as the price for "free" government health care.

Source: Sarah Lyall, "Britain's Prescription for Health Care: Take a Seat," New York Times, April 18, 1999.


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