Hospital Dr News

Health Alliance calls for cross-government health inequalities strategy

Real life stories of how people’s health is damaged by social factors such as poor housing are being highlighted by nearly 200 organisations calling for a cross-government strategy to reduce health inequalities.

The stories appear in a position paper, The case for a cross-government strategy, produced by the Inequalities in Health Alliance (IHA), and include:

•             An extremely malnourished and dehydrated patient, eventually admitted to hospital with sepsis, regularly missing meals so that she was able to feed her teenage son and afraid to call her GP for fear that he would be ‘taken into care’.

•             A clinic providing bus passes because otherwise patients’ health deteriorated because they could not afford to attend for regular monitoring or treatment.

•             A patient whose asthma worsened when his landlord refused to fix mould in his private rented accommodation and instead evicted him.

Over 90 senior representatives of the IHA have written to the Prime Minister calling for an explicit cross-government health inequalities strategy, with clear measurable goals, that considers the role of every department and every available policy lever in tackling health disparities.

The Alliance says it has been ‘encouraged’ by commitments such as the Office for Health Improvement & Disparities, Levelling Up agenda and the cross-government ministerial board on prevention which all hold ‘great potential to be the catalyst we need to tackle health inequalities’.

In the letter, the IHA asks for this work to be underpinned and strengthened with a cross-government strategy to reduce health inequalities that is led by, and accountable to, the prime minister.

Health inequalities – unfair and avoidable differences in health and access to healthcare across the population, and between different groups within society – were a problem before COVID-19, with the gap in healthy life expectancy between the richest and poorest areas around 19 years.

Pandemic deepened inequalities

However, the pandemic has tragically demonstrated how these inequalities can have an impact in just a matter of weeks. Many deaths could have been prevented if there had been better levels of general health before the pandemic, the Alliance claims.

Before COVID-19, health inequalities were estimated to cost the UK between £31 billion and £33 billion each year in lost productivity and £20 billion to £32 billion in lost tax revenue and higher benefit payments.

The NHS Long Term Plan and the NHS recovery from COVID-19 are focussed on reducing health inequalities but the IHA believes that a cross-government strategy is the only way to address the underlying causes.

Andrew Goddard, president of the Royal College of Physicians, says: “COVID-19 acted as a flag to unite behind. Now that we are emerging from the worst phases of the pandemic, we need a new flag.

“Reducing health inequalities is that flag because they have never been as big in modern times and the need to reduce them never more apparent.”

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