NHS Public Satisfaction Rates Tumble

Public satisfaction regarding how the NHS functions across the UK dropped by 12% last year, to 58% from 70% in 2010, according to the most recent British Social Attitudes Survey.

This is the largest decrease in one year from when the survey started in 1983, although it still remains the third highest documented level of satisfaction in its history, observed The King’s Fund, who sponsored the survey’s health questions.

The health questions made up part of the survey, which covers a whole range of policy areas.  The 1,096 respondents were asked ‘how satisfied or dissatisfied’ they were with the way the National Health Service (NHS) was run.

Satisfaction rates in the survey for individual NHS services dropped, for general practitioners by four percentage points to 73%, for inpatient services by five points to 55%, for outpatient services by six percentage points to 61%, and for A&E by seven points to 54%.

When the statistics were viewed in greater detail they showed similar patterns.  Satisfaction reduced among followers of all of the three main political parties, although expectedly satisfaction dropped the most among Labour voters.

The drops were also similar when England was compared to Scotland and Wales combined.  Although the recent NHS reforms only apply to England, the King’s Fund proposed there could be some ‘leakage’ into the public perception elsewhere.

Scrutinising the causes for this sharp fall in satisfaction, The King’s Fund notes that people were surveyed for the survey from July to November 2011, a period that overlapped with the first year of a four-year real-terms freeze on NHS expenditure and continual media exposure regarding the UK government’s health reforms.

With the National Health Service having performed well in a variety of important indicators and patient experience surveys, the Fund believes that the most likely reason for the new fall in public satisfaction recorded on the survey is that “concern about the government’s health reforms, reaction to funding pressures and ministerial rhetoric to justify the reforms may have combined to dent public confidence in the way the NHS runs.”

“The value of this survey is that is has tracked public satisfaction over a long period, providing an important barometer of how the public view the NHS,” commented John Appleby, chief economist at The King’s Fund.

“The run of year-on-year increases had to come to an end at some stage, and it is not surprising this has happened when the NHS is facing a well-publicised spending squeeze. Nevertheless, it is something of a shock that it has fallen so significantly. This will be a concern to the government, given it appears to be closely liked with the debate on its NHS reforms,” he added.

The NHS Confederation also believes that the survey’s sign that the public have become concerned and confused around what is happening to the NHS relates mainly to understanding and whether they agree with the NHS reforms.

“It is really important that politicians and NHS leaders are engaging the public in the major debate about the NHS and how we need to change in order to sustain and improve the services they have come to expect and value over recent years,” commented the NHS Confederation’s chief executive, Mike Farrar.

Over the next few months, it will be increasingly important for the government and the NHS to communicate effectively the monetary challenges being faced, he added.

“The NHS has got to respond to massive financial pressure and the changing nature of health and social care in a way that takes patients and the public with us. It will be much harder to make the changes to services necessary if public perception and confidence deteriorates,” Farrar warned.

However, health minister Simon Burns observed that the findings of the survey contradict the government’s own research which demonstrated that satisfaction rates continued to remain high.  Specifically, he highlighted the yearly patient survey which revealed that 92% of patients rated their experience as good, very good or excellent.

“The British Social Attitudes Survey targets the general public rather than targeting people that have actually used the NHS, so responses are influenced by other factors,” he noted.  It is therefore “not as accurate a picture as the data from patients,” Burns added.


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