Neil Hall / Reuters, file
Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron speaks with patient Liam Islam during his visit to the Evelina London Children's Hospital in London on July 5. Cameron's visit marked the 65th anniversary of the National Health Service.
LONDON -- At the private Lindo Wing of St Mary's Hospital in London, the Duchess of Cambridge will receive some of the best medical treatment in the world – at a going rate of $10,000 for a one-day birth.
But Britons relying on the country's free and state-run National Health Service may consider themselves lucky to get out of some hospitals alive.
An official report released by the NHS this week found that thousands of Britons may have died unnecessarily because of poor care.
The scathing review has prompted a furious political debate over who is to blame. It said that failing NHS hospitals are "trapped in mediocrity" and named 11 hospitals in desperate need of improvement. Moreover, one member of the investigating panel said that the facilities named were not even the worst in the country.
"No statistics are perfect but mortality rates suggest that since 2005 thousands more people may have died [than] would normally be expected at the 14 trusts reviewed," Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt told the House of Commons on Tuesday.
The NHS report blamed a desperate shortage of nurses who sometimes worked twelve days straight. Poor management and equipment were also blamed, as were rampant infections.
So while the Duchess of Cambridge will quite literally be receiving the royal treatment -- with access to satellite TV, hot meals on china dishes and a single doctor -- patients at some of the NHS hospitals reviewed might expect condescending nurses and multiple transfers to different wards with no explanation, according to the findings.
The report also described elderly patients being left in soiled beds or in bathrooms with the doors wide open because nurses were busy.
At one hospital, junior doctors told visiting NHS inspectors that they were responsible for up to 250 patients on weekends. At another, nurses described how they called 999 (the equivalent of 911 in the U.S.) because there weren't enough doctors on duty.
Professor Bruce Keogh, medical director for the NHS in England and the author of the report, said the cases "make uncomfortable reading."
"Not one of these trusts has been given a clean bill of health by my review teams," Keogh said in his opening statement to Britain's health secretary.
The press has since been flooded with anguished relatives telling of the needless deaths of family members.
A tongue cancer patient at Wycombe Hospital in Buckinghamshire, one of the trusts slammed in the report, was given solid food despite having a note on his file explicitly stating he couldn't eat it. He was resuscitated but later died because the food – a Weetabix – made its way into his lungs, the UK's Channel 4 News reported.
"I was horrified such a simple mistake could be made," Gary Maitland, the patient's son, told Channel 4. "It was three weeks of pain and anguish. I would rather he hadn't been resuscitated in first action, having watched him go through that for three weeks."
The deadly mistake was blamed on a "shortfall in communication."
In an interview with the BBC, one woman described how her grandfather, a former Royal Marines commando during the Second World War, "went from a man to a boy" after being treated at the Basildon Hospital for a lung infection. He died several weeks later.
Health Secretary Hunt said "swift and tough" action would be taken. "We owe it to the three million people who use the NHS every week to tackle and confront mediocrity and inadequate leadership head on," he said.
But public confidence in the NHS, long one of Britain's most respected institutions, appears to have been shattered.
Back at the exclusive Lindo wing, there are only two health questions occupying the world’s media: When will the royal baby be born, and is it a boy or a girl?
Martin Fletcheris a longtime NBC News correspondent and author.
First published July 17 2013, 9:14 AM