If you are seriously considering studying medicine and becoming a doctor in the UK, that means that you are aiming to become an employee of The National Health Service (NHS).
Therefore, it is essential that you are well-informed about your future employer. You will be expected to know about the NHS in all stages of the medical school application process, and especially at your medical school interview.
This page provides a brief history of the NHS. Don’t forget to use all the subpages to make the most of the section. These include the structure of the NHS, the challenges it faces, and what it is like working for the NHS.
Want an idea of the kinds of questions you might be asked about the NHS or hot topics at interview? Visit our Interview Question Bank!
The NHS is part of the welfare state that was fostered by the Labour Government that came into office in 1945. It was created by the National Health Service Act 1946, the brainchild of pioneering Health Minister Aneurin Bevan.
It was one of Bevan’s founding principles that the NHS should be funded by general taxation as well as National Insurance contributions. It’s the reason why health services (like going to the doctor, having surgery or being treated in hospital) are free at the point of use in the United Kingdom.
Countries without free healthcare normally fund their healthcare systems privately, often through personal health insurance. Private healthcare does exist in the UK, but only accounts for a very small amount of healthcare provision.
What was Healthcare like Before the NHS?
In 1911, the Prime Minster David Lloyd George introduced the National Insurance Act. This Act was designed to partially fund healthcare for working people. A small amount was deducted from weekly wages, and together with employer and government contributions this meant that the worker was entitled to medical care, retirement and unemployment benefits.
However, medicines still had to be paid for. And since women and children were much less likely to be legally employed, they were mostly not entitled to free medical care — a major flaw in the system.
Various calls for state-subsidised healthcare were made by politicians over the years, although there was also much opposition to the idea, including from the British Medical Association.
Who was Aneurin Bevan?
Aneurin Bevan was a Labour politician who was Minister of Health for the post-war Clement Attlee government from 1945 to 1951.
He was the architect of the NHS, driven by his strong belief that ‘no society can call itself civilised if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means’.
But many others contributed to its formation, including his predecessor Henry Willink. Willink wrote the 1944 White Paper that laid out the founding principles of a National Health Service in the UK, which are still in place today.
What are the Founding Principles of the NHS?
In his White Paper, Willink declared that NHS services should be:
Free at the point of use
Financed from general taxation (as opposed to National Insurance contributions)
Available to all: everyone is eligible for free care, including temporary residents and visitors to the UK
What is the Link Between the NHS and the Welfare State?
The creation of the NHS was part of a larger plan of social reforms set out in the 1945 Labour Manifesto, which also included reform of housing, education and employment conditions. These reforms constituted the creation of a welfare state which famously aimed to provide for its citizens ‘from the cradle to the grave’.
Although the Second World War had severely depleted the nation’s financial and material resources, many saw peace-time as a chance to rebuild not just the heavily bombed areas of the UK, but the structure of society too.
It wasn’t easy, and in its first year the NHS overspent by a big margin. But it was argued that this was due to a rush on its services from people who had been desperately lacking in medical care.
Financing the NHS continued to be a point of contention. Bevan himself resigned in 1951 when money began to be redirected to meet the costs of the Korean War, and charges for prescriptions and dental care were introduced.
The NHS has seen some significant reorganisation and restructuring over the years, including devolution to the four countries of the UK, but its major principles have remained intact. Let’s now take a closer look at how the NHS worked in the past – and how it works today.