By Sian Claire Owen

Historically, the issue of US healthcare reform has always been a political hot potato. And in the recent rounds, as the argument intensifies, the notion of ‘rational debate’ seems to have been thrown out of the window and replaced with scare tactics, in the mainstream media at least.

In particular, the UK healthcare system (the National Health Service, or NHS) recently came under heavy criticism by the anti-reform lobby.

In the US a series of high-profile, anti-reform TV adverts targeted the NHS to highlight the ‘horrors’ of socialised medicine. These adverts paint the NHS as an archaic, almost medieval structure plagued with ‘death panels’, endless waiting lists and the refusal of vital medicines, with patient choice denied in the face of stifling Government bureaucracy.

Although the NHS is far from perfect, these adverts – produced by Creative Response Concepts, the same PR firm responsible for the ‘Swiftboat Veterans for Truth’ campaign that sunk John Kerry’s presidential bid in 2004 – hardly ring true.

Fittingly, Senator John Kerry recently called for these lies to be exposed, and last week an open letter addressed to Senator Kerry and signed by some of the leading NHS healthcare professionals was published in the British Medical Journal in answer to that call.

Dr Jacky Davis, co-chair of the NHS Consultants Association is one of the co-authors. She explains that she was moved to write the letter not only to refute the lies, but also because she believes that the American public deserve an honest debate focusing on the real issues, rather than hyperbole drummed up by opposition factions.

Davis, whose husband is American, says: “The US healthcare system can be described as ‘islands of excellence in a sea of misery’. For those with appropriate coverage the care is excellent, but for those with no insurance or who are denied care because of pre-existing conditions, their situation is dire.”

“Obama needs to be allowed to take this issue on,” she adds. “We feel strongly that the US needs a fair debate.”

Dragging the NHS into the equation could muddy the already murky waters even further. As Davis says: “We can’t tell the Americans how to run their health services, but they do deserve a good debate. Currently this strategy [of using scare tactics about the NHS] is playing into people’s lack of knowledge. It’s quite disgraceful.”

So what will this letter, signed by more than 100 leading NHS professionals, achieve? As Davis says: “We haven’t had a political response yet. I don’t know whether they will acknowledge it.” And true to form representatives of Senator Kerry were unavailable for comment.

“But the take home message is that the NHS delivers care to everybody for half the money they spend in the US,” she adds. “In the US there’s a huge vested interest behind the campaign. You can see how much money is made in profits.”

Of note, NHS Consultants Association is, according to its web site, an organisation formed in 1976, “by consultants with a strong commitment to the NHS and its founding principles… [it] believes in planning and cooperation rather than market forces and commercial competition for healthcare.” Dr Davis is also a member of the BMA Council and is co-founder of the Keep Our NHS Public campaign group.