The chief executive of Public Health England has urged a fundamental rethink of how illness and wellbeing are perceived, stating: “The NHS is not the same as health.”

Duncan Selbie told a conference the nation’s health had fallen behind that of mainland Europe and America. “The answer won’t be more of what we have been doing,” he said.

Mr Selbie said the service needed to move to a “population health perspective” and away from an “obsession with hospital medicine” and reorganisations.

He added: “We are just obsessed [with hospitals] and have the NHS we have as a result. It is much loved. But why are we celebrating when we know that it is not good? I have been there my whole working life and love it but [the NHS] is not the same as health.

“We should not be tolerating variation of outcome that is nothing other than a function of how we have chosed to organise. We all need to do our bit about this.”

The former chief executive of Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals Trust took up his post as head of the national body in April last year and was addressing a launch event on improving sustainability in the NHS, alongside NHS chief executive Sir David Nicholson and NHS Confederation chief executive Mike Farrar.

Mr Farrar said the public needed to be helped to use services more sustainably, referring to a “care footprint”.

He told the audience that 20 years ago recycling was seen as a niche “crank” activity whereas today it was considered part of people’s duty as citizens, and that a similar transformation needed to be made with the perception of NHS resources.