The National Health Service is ailing behind many of its international peers on a range of key care quality indicators such as preventable hospital admissions and cancer survival, a new report shows.

According to a study by the Nuffield Trust and the Health Foundation, which looked at a decade of data from 15 OECD countries on a range of indicators, while the NHS has improved on almost every measure since the start of the millennium it still lags behind most other countries in several areas of care.

For example, rates of potentially preventable hospital admissions for chronic respiratory conditions, such as asthma and lung diseases, remain relatively high in the UK; by 2011 there were 61 admissions for asthma per 100,000 population compared to just 13.6 in Canada and 11.4.

Patients in the UK are more likely to die from a heart attack than those in other countries, with 10% over the age of 45 dying within 30 days versus 8.2% in Norway, 8.4% in New Zealand, and 8.5% in Sweden in 2011, the findings show.

And, while UK cancer screening services are performing well, survival rates are lower for many common cancers. Between 2007 and 2012 82% of women survived over five years for breast cancer, compared to 87.4% in Sweden. Five-year survival rates for cervical and bowel cancers were also worse than other countries, and overall mortality rates remain higher than comparable countries, the report noted.

On the plus side, the UK performs better than others in achieving high flu vaccination rates and lower antibiotic prescribing rates, “suggesting a well-functioning primary care system”, the authors note.

UK must ‘do better’

Commenting on the findings, Nuffield Trust Chief Executive Nigel Edwards said “interpreting international data on healthcare systems is notoriously tricky, and any comparisons should be handled with care,” but stressed it is clear from the analysis “that the UK can and should do better”.

The Department for Health said the report shows “significant progress in quality across the board”. 

“The NHS is already perhaps the most equitable system globally, and we are now focusing on tackling preventable conditions like obesity and type two diabetes”. 

Also, “by investing £8 billion to create a truly seven-day service by 2020, we'll continue to reduce mortality and improve patient care”, it said.