The NHS currently faces unprecedented challenges; challenges that are making headlines on a daily basis. But in the midst of these problems, it’s easy to forget just how special the NHS is.

It is, for example, the fifth largest employer in the world and the largest in Europe, with upwards of 1.5 million employees. That puts it up there with McDonald’s, Walmart and the Chinese military. And those 1.5 million workers service a population of more than 65 million people, for free.

So if the NHS was a country, how big would it be? Well put it this way: the NHS workforce alone is almost the size of Latvia, and helps 1 million patients every 36 hours.

In this context, it isn’t hard to see why the NHS is starting to creak – it is, after all, only as human as the brilliant people who make it work. And its sheer size is matched only by the size of the tasks it faces.

The numbers that show just how big the NHS is

  • Expected expenditure on the NHS this year is £127 billion, which is still a fair way short of what many believe is needed. That’s bigger than the GDP of Morocco, Hungary or Sri Lanka
  • Despite huge staffing challenges, the NHS employs around 315,000 nurses and health visitors
  • NHS ambulances make 50,000 journeys each week
  • NHS Direct takes around 8 million calls a year
  • Doctors across the NHS are made up of 152 different nationalities – making it one of the most diverse workforces on the planet

Meanwhile, the Commonwealth Fund has recently deemed the NHS the best, safest and most affordable healthcare system out of 11 countries that include the US, Germany, France, Canada and Australia. Not bad for an institution facing the biggest budget squeeze in its 70-year history.

Indeed, the scale of what the NHS achieves really comes to life when compared to other healthcare systems.

How does US healthcare compare to the NHS?

If there is an opposite of the NHS, the US healthcare system is probably it.

So how does it compare?

  • America spends 17.7% of its total economy on healthcare; the UK spends around half that (9.4%)
  • Even more remarkably, despite having a mostly private healthcare system, the US still spends 7.4% of its total economy on public health
  • The average number of doctor visits per person in the US is 4.1; in the UK it’s 5
  • Half of all healthcare spending in the US goes towards just 5% of the population
  • At least 210,000 American patients are killed annually by medical errors – on eof the highest rates in the world
  • Americans pay more for drugs than any other country in the world. For example, Nexium, the heartburn medication, costs $215 – and in the UK, it costs the equivalent of $42

So effectively, the average American spends far more than the average Brit – but in return, actually sees a doctor less often. And the infamous inequality of the American system is a worthwhile reminder of how special the NHS is.

It’s enormous, it’s complex, it’s overstretched, it’s underfunded – and it’s feeling the pressure. But it’s also one of the fairest, most affordable and most resilient healthcare systems on the planet. And that’s something every nurse, doctor and healthcare worker should be incredibly proud of.

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And if you’d like more content like this – celebrating the NHS in its 70th year – head to our dedicated page.