Public health

Health inequalities to widen: Action must extend beyond the NHS to stop public health crisis

The Health Foundation is calling for government action to address the rise in health inequalities, following the publication of research that shows 3.7 million working-age adults will be living with major illness by 2040.

That figure is 700,000 more than 2019 and should act as a “wake-up call” for policymakers ahead of this year’s general election, according to sector experts.

The report is the second in a series of research projects from the Health Foundation’s REAL Centre in collaboration with the University of Liverpool.

The first report indicated that, without further action, the number of people living with major illness would increase to 9.3 million by 2040, which is 2.6 million more than in 2019.

The REAL Centre’s latest release also warns that 540,000 of the 700,000 jump will fall on England’s most deprived areas – worsening health inequalities.

The majority of the impact derives from conditions like chronic pain, type 2 diabetes, as well as anxiety and depression, which are predicted to grow at a faster rate in the most deprived areas.

Given this type of illness is also mainly managed in general practice or the community, the Health Foundation says their findings highlight the need for primary care investment, and a focus on prevention or early intervention.

Economist at the Health Foundation’s REAL Centre, Ann Raymond, said: “The findings from this report clearly demonstrate how people living in more deprived areas develop major illness earlier, live for longer in poor health and die younger than their counterparts in less deprived areas.

“These inequalities will remain stubbornly persistent over the next two decades if current trends continue.”

Those in the most deprived areas are at risk of developing major illness 10 years earlier than those in the least deprived areas, while also being three times more likely to die by the age 70.

Although the Health Foundation emphasises that investment in the NHS is necessary, action will need to extend beyond the health service.

Public health policies on smoking, diet, exercise, and alcohol are required but a long-term, cross-government plan to tackle the root causes of ill health (poor housing, low incomes, poor-quality jobs etc.) needs to be outlined as well.

Employers should also be doing more to improve their employees’ working conditions. Funding for councils and voluntary sector organisations is highlighted too.

NHS Providers has backed the Health Foundation’s call. Deputy chief executive, Saffron Cordery, said: "These findings are worrying but sadly not surprising given the cuts to public health and prevention services over the years.

"More support and funding for public health services is vital to ensure a healthier population. Prevention is better than cure.”

Image credit: iStock

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