Call for action over health inequality in Scotland

DOCTORS are demanding action to tackle health problems in deprived areas as they claim the gap between rich and poor has “never been more apparent”.

hHospital admissions rate for heart attacks was approximately 2.5 times higher in the most deprived areas than the least deprived communities. Picture: PA
hHospital admissions rate for heart attacks was approximately 2.5 times higher in the most deprived areas than the least deprived communities. Picture: PA

Dr Brian Keighley, chairman of the British Medical Association (BMA) in Scotland, called for all policies to be assessed to examine what impact they would have on health inequality.

He spoke out as a new report on the problem was published by the Scottish Government, with public health minister Michael Matheson accepting that reducing the health gap between rich and poor was “one of our greatest challenges”.

Sign up to our Politics newsletter

The report revealed the amount of their life that people could expect to be in good health was much higher in the most deprived communities, where men and women can expect to spend 22.7 years and 26.1 years respectively in “not good” health.

That compares to just 11.9 years and 12 years for men and women in most affluent parts of Scotland.

Admissions rate

The hospital admissions rate for heart attacks was approximately 2.5 times higher in the most deprived areas than the least deprived communities, adding that since 2008 “the admissions rate in the most deprived areas has increased at a faster rate than in the least deprived areas”, leading to an increase in both relative and absolute inequality.

Cancer is also more common in deprived areas, with 418 cases per 100,000 people in these areas in 2011, compared to 288 cases per 100,000 in more affluent areas.

People aged between 45 and 75 in the poorest communities were more than twice as likely to die from cancer than those in the least deprived areas, according to the report.

While Dr Keighley said, overall, people were “living healthier and longer lives”, he added: “For those people living in the most deprived communities the inequalities in health have never been more apparent.”

He said: “We cannot simply continue to argue that public health policies are working to improve the lives of Scots when the differences between rich and poor are so apparent.

“No matter how many taskforces and inquiries politicians establish they are no substitute for action.

“The health effects of social inequalities are a huge burden on the NHS and whilst doctors can do all they can to treat these illnesses, they will not reduce the drivers of inequality in society.

“Giving people access to jobs, good education, quality housing and welfare support would help to reduce the gap, thereby relieving pressure on the health service.

“That is why the BMA supports the introduction of health inequality impact assessments across all areas of government policy to ensure that strategies across the spectrum of public services are driving down inequalities and improving the life chances of people living in Scotland’s poorest communities.”

Mr Matheson said that “reducing the health gap between people in Scotland’s most deprived and affluent communities is one of our greatest challenges”.

Welfare reforms

While he said the Scottish Government was taking “decisive action” to try to tackle drinking and reduce smoking, he voiced concerns about the impact of welfare reforms imposed by Westminster.

Mr Matheson said: “At the root is the 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.

“In the face of the UK Government’s welfare cuts, we are working with all of our partners to tackle poverty and inequality, and help those who want to work to get into work.

“Many people in Scotland are concerned about the welfare policies of the UK Government and the implications they could have on them and their families.

“That is why we want to develop a Scottish system which provide support for those who need it.”

He went on: “We are continuing to take decisive action in areas we have control, for example to address alcohol consumption, reduce smoking rates, encourage active living, healthy eating, and promote positive mental health.

“But without full control over areas like welfare, we are left having to deal with UK Government welfare policies that only threaten to make things worse.”