Health should be the top priority for government, a survey has suggested.
The NHS has been getting record budget increases
A poll of nearly 2,400 people by the Royal College of Nursing found that health was ranked above law and order, defence, education and the environment.
And nearly half of those questioned agreed ministers should introduce a dedicated NHS tax.
It comes as the government is predicted to reduce the record increases in funding the NHS has been receiving in recent years.
The NHS budget will have trebled by 2008 after rises of over 7% a year in real terms since 2002.
Many predict the spending review in the autumn is likely to lead to increases of about half that from 2008-9.
Critics have said if this does happen it will actually feel like a budget cut.
A third of those questioned said they wanted to see funding maintained at current levels, while 59% said they wanted it to be increased.
Many said they feared services would be cut if this did not happen.
In total, 37% said health should be the most important spending priority, 23% law and order, 20% education, 10% environment and 2% defence.
When asked in more detail about their healthcare priorities, almost half of those surveyed ranked hospitals above other areas, such as reducing waiting times, more health services in the community, care for the elderly and public health.
The poll, carried out by YouGov for the RCN and published as nurses gather in Harrogate for their annual conference, also suggested there was an appetite for a specific tax for the NHS.
Some 46% said they would be happy for this to be introduced with 17% saying it should be levied from all taxpayers, 18% from higher rate tax payers and 11% from those earning over £100,000.
RCN general secretary Dr Peter Carter said: "This survey is proof that the public value and believe in our NHS.
"They want modernisation, not privatisation and that they demand increased investment in order to maintain the welcome progress made in recent years.
"The NHS is a unique public institution with a unique role in our national life and it should be supported and sustained.
"That's what the public believe and that's the message our politicians need to hear and act upon."
But health experts said a cut in the increases would not necessarily mean the NHS has to suffer.
A recent report by the King's Fund health think-tank concluded good planning and a better relationship between doctors and managers could avoid cuts in services.
And Henry de Zoete, a researcher at the centre-right think-tank Reform, added: "It is not like it is a pay-cut.
"I think what we will see is that it will focus people's minds and make the health service more efficient."