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How much does the NHS cost the UK compared to healthcare spending in other countries?

The UK spends less per person on healthcare than the US, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Australia or Canada. But more than Madagascar

Paramedics, nurses and 999 call handlers have all taken strike action this winter to protest low pay and inadequate investment in the NHS Image: Evie Breese / The Big Issue

The UK spends less per person on healthcare than the US, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Australia or Canada. But more than India

Britain’s healthcare is in crisis, with leaders and senior doctors calling the pressures facing the NHS “intolerable and unsustainable”.

A&E waits are the worst on record and there are “grave concerns” over patient safety as people wait hours, and even days, to be seen. 

Added to this is an exodus of doctors and nurses who are taking more days off sick than ever, quitting their jobs for better paid roles abroad, and leaving the NHS with a major shortage of medical staff. 

But the government has a plan, finally. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has unveiled his strategy for a major expansion in training places for health staff in England. Calling the plan “historic”, it includes expanding university places for medical and nursing students alongside the first ever apprenticeship scheme for doctors. 

Pay, a key issue raised by the British Medical Association that has represented striking junior doctors, is not mentioned in the plan, which is geared largely towards training. There will also be a consultation on whether five-year medical degrees can be shortened. 

With the plan announced more than a year after it was expected, it couldn’t come soon enough. 

A damning new report from the King’s Fund found that Brits die sooner from heart disease and cancer than people in many other rich countries, and the NHS’s lack of staff and resources are in part to blame. 

The health think-tank found that years of underinvestment has weakened the NHS’s ability to tackle the most deadly diseases, suggesting that if it had more staff, beds and equipment (such as MRI and CT scanners), there would be fewer avoidable deaths. 

Researchers also pinpointed the health service’s “strikingly low levels of key clinical staff, including doctors and nurses” in comparison to other countries. Jobs elsewhere are also more likely to offer competitive pay to medical professionals, backing-up concerns raised by union the British Medical Association that junior doctors are being tempted overseas by higher pay packets. 

The Kings Fund compared the healthcare systems of 19 well-off nations to conclude that Britain’s “below average” health outcomes are because it spends a “below average” amount for every person on healthcare. 

Not every country in the world has universal healthcare, and those that do differ on how much money is allocated per person. How much does the UK spend on healthcare? Is it as high as one might think? And which country spends the most in the world?

How much does the NHS cost the UK?

In terms of how much the UK spends on the healthcare of each person in the country, the UK is generally below average.

The UK spent $4,500 (£3,559 in today’s money) per person on healthcare in 2019, £3,976 per person in 2020 and £4,266 per person in 2021, according to the King’s Fund analysis of data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

As a share of GDP, the UK spent 9.9% on healthcare in 2019, but this rose to 12% in 2020 to account for the cost of responding to the Covid pandemic. Spending dropped slightly to 11.9% in 2021, leaving the UK “roughly average at best” in the amount it spends on health care compared to comparator countries, according to the King’s Fund. 

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It is also worth remembering that healthcare spending is uneven depending on where in the UK you live. In the five years before the pandemic, people in England received less healthcare spending compared to each of the UK nations, with Northern Ireland the highest.

In England, London has the highest healthcare spend per person, and the south-east has the lowest, with more than an £800 (37 per cent) per person difference in 2019/20, according to the British Medical Journal

Is healthcare really free in the UK?

It is true we have universal healthcare, in that every resident in the UK can walk into a hospital and receive treatment at any time without any upfront costs. However, it wouldn’t be completely accurate to say it is free.

We do pay for healthcare, through our taxes and National Insurance paid out from your salary. This covers the majority of your healthcare needs, but does not include prescription costs, dental care, or eye care which (for most people) are paid for over the counter.

How much does France spend on healthcare?

People in France received, on average, a little more spending on their healthcare than in the UK (£3,559), at £4,171 per person in 2019, according to the latest data from the OECD. Like Britain, France has a universal healthcare system financed by government health insurance. 

In 2000, the WHO deemed that France provided the “best overall health care” in the world. Over 20 years later, however, this top spot was taken by Japan, followed by Singapore in second place, South Korea, then Norway.

How much does the US spend on healthcare?

Despite the reputation of healthcare in the US being poor and heavily privatised, the country shells out quite a lot of money on healthcare.

The US government spent £8,659 per person on healthcare – more than double the UK, despite having nearly five times as many people.

However, around 28 million people in the US are not covered by public or private health insurance.

The average health insurance cost for an individual is over £5,822 per year. But an average insured American will pay around £1,371 in medical costs before their insurance kicks in.

The healthcare system in Switzerland has a reputation for being outstanding. In 2019, the country spent £8,039 per person on healthcare, more than double the amount the UK spends. 

Switzerland has a universal healthcare system, paid for by individuals through contributions to public health insurance schemes. All residents and non-residents are required to pay enough for basic cover, which will take care of 80 to 90 percent of healthcare costs. 

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In September, health authorities raised the average monthly premiums charged by health insurance companies by 3.9 per cent to 9.5 per cent. The Swiss interior minister Alain Berset told journalists at the time it was a “difficult” and “unpleasant” development, citing Covid-19 as a primary reason for the increase in healthcare costs.

How much does Switzerland spend on healthcare?

The healthcare system in Switzerland has a reputation for being outstanding, and  the country spent £5,646 per person on healthcare in 2019. 

Switzerland has a universal healthcare system, paid for by individuals through contributions to public health insurance schemes. All residents and non-residents are required to pay enough for basic cover, which will take care of 80 to 90% of healthcare costs. 

In September, health authorities raised the average monthly premiums charged by health insurance companies by 3.9% to 9.5%. The Swiss interior minister Alain Berset told journalists at the time it was a “difficult” and “unpleasant” development, citing Covid-19 as a primary reason for the increase in healthcare costs.

How much does Scandinavia spend on healthcare?

Out of the Scandinavian countries, OECD data shows Norway spent the most on healthcare – around £5,335 per person in 2019, with Sweden and Denmark’s spending roughly on par at around £4,300. 

Iceland spent the least of all the Nordic countries, averaging £3,592 per person, which is still around £400 more per person than the UK.

How much does Germany spend on healthcare?

Germany spent £5,155 on healthcare per person, in 2019, putting it in fourth place out of the OECD countries, and well ahead of the UK

German citizens and legal residents are all entitled to free “medically necessary” healthcare, funded by taxes. But, everyone living in Germany must also have state or private health insurance, which covers hospital treatments, outpatient medical costs, prescription drugs, and pregnancy.

Health insurance in Germany can range from around £132 to £882 a month depending on your personal circumstances.

How much does Ireland spend on healthcare?

The Irish government spent £4,020 per person on healthcare, almost £500 more per person  than the British government spent. 

Healthcare in Ireland is delivered through a mix of private and public bodies. A new national health service was established in 2005, which is still in the process of being set up as an alternative to the large private healthcare market.

Hospitals in Ireland have long faced serious overcrowding issues, but the number of patients waiting on trolleys has reached record highs in 2023.

How much does Australia spend on healthcare?

People in Australia received on average of £3,890 spent on their healthcare each in 2019, which is £300 more than people in the UK.

Healthcare in Australia is underpinned by Medicare – a universal health insurance scheme funded by the government. This means patients can receive care free of charge. However, Medicare does not usually cover costs for ambulance services, most dental services and optical aids (such as glasses and contact lenses), so people are encouraged to buy health insurance to cover this. The government refunds the cost of health insurance for those on the lowest incomes.

How much does Canada spend on healthcare?

Canada has a universal, publicly-funded healthcare system, also called Medicare. All citizens and permanent residents can access hospital treatment and GP services for free when they need it. Across the country’s 13 provinces and territories, Canada spent on average £4,247 per person on healthcare in 2019, that’s around £700 more than was spent on each Brit.

Some services are excluded from the free healthcare system, including prescriptions and dental care – but many provinces and territories provide some coverage for marginalised groups.

That honour, surprisingly, goes to the US. They spend more on healthcare than any other country in the world, beating all high-income countries.

Which country spends the most on healthcare?

That honour, surprisingly, goes to the US. They spend more on healthcare than any other country in the world, beating all high-income countries.

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health determined that the higher overall health care spending in the US was due mainly to higher prices, including “higher drug prices, higher salaries for doctors and nurses, higher hospital administration costs and higher prices for many medical services”.

So they may get the same care — or even lesser care — but it costs more.

Which country spends the least on healthcare?

Of the OECD countries, India spent the least on healthcare, at just £203 per person. 

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