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Space, place and (waiting) time: reflections on health policy and politics

  • Sally Sheard (a1)


Health systems have repeatedly addressed concerns about efficiency and equity by employing trans-national comparisons to draw out the strengths and weaknesses of specific policy initiatives. This paper demonstrates the potential for explicit historical analysis of waiting times for hospital treatment to add value to spatial comparative methodologies. Waiting times and the size of the lists of waiting patients have become key operational indicators. In the United Kingdom, as National Health Service (NHS) financial pressures intensified from the 1970s, waiting times have become a topic for regular public and political debate. Various explanations for waiting times include the following: hospital consultants manipulate NHS waiting lists to maintain their private practice; there is under-investment in the NHS; and available (and adequate) resources are being used inefficiently. Other countries have also experienced ongoing tensions between the public and private delivery of universal health care in which national and trans-national comparisons of waiting times have been regularly used. The paper discusses the development of key UK policies, and provides a limited Canadian comparative perspective, to explore wider issues, including whether ‘waiting crises’ were consciously used by policymakers, especially those brought into government to implement new economic and managerial strategies, to diminish the autonomy and authority of the medical professional in the hospital environment.

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This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (, which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Corresponding author

*Correspondence to: Professor Sally Sheard, Department of Public Health and Policy, University of Liverpool, Liverpool L69 3GB, UK. Email:


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