TACKLING health problems in deprived communities remains one of Scotland’s greatest challenges, the public health minister has said.
Michael Matheson was responding to new figures showing that deaths in the poorest areas of the country were more than three times as common as in the most affluent in 2012.
A Scottish Government report on the health gap reveals that the hospital admissions rate for heart attacks was three times higher in poorer areas compared to the least deprived areas.
It adds: “The admission rate in the most deprived areas has increased by 45% since 2007 and by 15% in the last year.”
Deaths from heart disease are about five times more likely in Scotland’s worst-off areas, compared to its most affluent communities.
Cancer is more common in deprived parts of the country, with 531 cases per 100,000 of the population, compared to 388.
Those aged 45-74 who are diagnosed with the disease in deprived areas are also more than twice as likely to die.
The report reveals an improvement in alcohol-related deaths, stating: “The difference between rates in the most and least deprived areas in 2012 was the smallest observed in the reporting period.
“However, the rate in the most deprived areas is around eight times higher than in areas of low deprivation.”
Mr Matheson said: “Reducing the health gap between people in Scotland’s most deprived and affluent communities is one of our greatest challenges.
“At the root this is an issue of income inequality - we need a shift in emphasis from dealing with the consequences to tackling the underlying causes, such as ending poverty, fair wages, supporting families and improving our physical and social environments.
“Scottish Government measures such as driving investment in affordable housing, free school meals and continuing the social wage commitments including free prescriptions, concessionary travel and free personal care, are the right approach to take; coupled with decisive action to address alcohol consumption, reduce smoking rates, encourage active living, healthy eating, and promote positive mental health.”
He said the Scottish Government was working to tackle inequality and poverty “in the face of the UK Government’s welfare cuts” and more powers were needed to develop a Scottish system.
Commenting on actions to reduce inequality, Andrew Fraser, director of public health science at NHS Health Scotland, said: “Measures such as the ban on smoking in public places and minimum unit pricing (MUP) for alcohol are likely to be effective, as would further regulation of the food industry.
“However, many of the most important causes of inequalities relate to taxation, welfare provision, education and opportunities for good work.
“As the impact of current welfare and tax changes come to fruition, competition for less-skilled jobs tightens, and as in-work poverty continues to rise, these factors may well increase health inequalities in the coming years.
“Therefore, a sustained decline in health inequalities is going to be challenging to achieve in these circumstances.”