Public satisfaction with the NHS saw its largest-ever drop last year as ministers highlighted weaknesses in the service to justify the Health and Social Care Act, and senior clinicians spoke out against the reforms.
The factors were cited by the King’s Fund as key reasons for the plummet in public confidence, identified today in the British Social Attitudes Survey.
The survey found that satisfaction with the running of the NHS fell from 70% to 58% between 2010 and 2011. It is the largest drop since the survey began in 1983, and comes after year-on-year rises every year since 2002.
A sample of more than 1,000 people was asked: “How satisfied or dissastisfied would you say you are with the way in which the NHS runs nowadays?”
The survey was conducted between July and November 2011, as ministers fought to pass their controversial Health and Social Care Bill through Parliament.
The King’s Fund paid for and oversaw the NHS part of the survey after the Department of Health stopped funding it last year. The think tank said concern about the government’s health reforms was the most likely explanation for the drop in satisfaction.
King’s Fund chief executive Chris Ham said: “This was done when the NHS was very much in the news, when part of that was ministers justifying the reforms by saying we don’t do as well as some other countries on cancer survival rates, which is true. That creates an impression that maybe the NHS is not doing as well as we thought it was.
“And, you had some very respected medical leaders standing up, saying this is the end of the NHS as we know it, if these reforms go ahead. The public will take notice of that too.”
“Those things will not be insignificant in the way people respond to a question such as this one.”
The fund’s chief economist John Appleby added that there were “undeniable” public concerns over the reforms and the financial pressure on the NHS.
Professor Appleby said there was no indication that a fall in the quality of services accounted for the drop in satisfaction, and said there was an “element of political partisanship” at work, with Labour voters registering a bigger fall in satisfaction than Conservative or Liberal Democrat supporters.
Satisfaction levels were down 4% for inpatient services, 7% for outpatient services, 7% for emergency services and 4% for GP services. However, dental services bucked the trend with a 5% rise in satisfaction.
A spokesman for health secretary Andrew Lansley said: “We won’t sweep things under the carpet and say everything is rosy when it isn’t. The NHS is the best in the world at some things but not everything.
“That’s not talking down the NHS – it’s being honest with people.”
The government’s own MORI polls, also published today, found that in late 2011 69% of patients are satisfied with the current running of the NHS, representing a fall of just one per cent on the year before.
Meanwhile, inpatient surveys, with a sample size of 70,000 were unchanged over four years, with 92% rating their care as good, very good or excellent.
Royal College of Nursing chief executive and general secretary Peter Carter described the findings as “disappointing but not surprising”.
He said: “Over the past couple of years we have seen tens of thousands of posts stripped out of the health service. Staff are working under huge amounts of stress and pressure. This is a particular issue in accident and emergency settings and sadly we have heard many cases of patients being regularly treated on corridors.
“The RCN has consistently said that the programme of huge reform coming at a time as the service in England struggles to save £20bn will have negative consequences,” he added. “This survey now bears this out and the government will have to sit up and take notice of these findings.”
But Paul Hodgkin, chief executive of campaign group Patient Opinion, said: “It may seem natural to attribute these figures to the structural changes that the health service is undergoing, but the majority of complaints that we receive are simple issues that are comparatively quick and cheap to remedy.
“If you look at the top problems amongst patients and their carers, you find that the things that actually matter the most happen at a staff to patient level, namely the attitudes of ward staff.”