The market for textbooks on health policy is becoming rather crowded. Recently several well-known texts that review the history, organisation and management of the NHS have appeared in second or later editions. These include widely-read texts by Chris Ham, Judith Allsop and Ruth Levitt, et al.
A second edition of Audrey Leathard's Health Care Provision - which first appeared in 1990 - has now been added to this list. Given the competition, there is a natural tendency to ask: what is distinctive about this book? One answer is its sheer breadth of content.
Leathard's book contains an encyclopaedic account of healthcare in Britain from 1900 to the present day, with a culminating chapter dealing with prospects for the 21st century. It is rather more than an updated first edition, with more than half of the book dealing with post-1990 developments.
An idea of its scope can be gleaned from the fact that it includes around 700 references to other published sources. Anyone wishing to gain basic information on any particular aspect of the NHS, or health policy more generally, will almost certainly find something of relevance.
For example, the review of the ten-year period of the internal market is extremely thorough, with a good synthesis of evidence from official and research publications on its genesis, implementation and impact. The inclusion of over 20 healthcare-related cartoons adds a lighter touch. This is certainly a fertile topic and surely merits a publication of its own among the growing number of compendia dealing with different aspects of medicine and healthcare.
Leathard has also succeeded in bringing together a good deal of material on the New Labour approach to healthcare. Sections deal with, among other things, health action zones, NHS Direct (and its initial evaluation), primary care groups and trusts, the National Institute for Clinical Excellence, Commission for Health Improvement, and health improvement programmes.
There are also chapters on such discrete topics as the education and training of health practitioners and international comparisons of health-sector performance. Both are highly relevant in the light of recent ministerial announcements about the NHS reaching the standards of other European countries and the proposals on workforce numbers included in the NHS plan - unfortunately the book was written too soon to take the plan on board.
Overall, the book contains an admirably wide range of information on the NHS. Indeed, at times it seems a little too wide as disparate topics cascade one on top of one another, with their organisation based more on chronology than analytical or conceptual categories.
On the other hand, at a time when too many publications are rushed out with the minimum preparation and care, Leathard and her publishers are to be congratulated on the thorough and meticulous way in which the information has been assembled and presented.