Claire Stevens: Health gap must be addressed

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It’s great news that more of us will be living longer.

This is probably down to a mix of factors: better lifestyle choices as individuals, healthier environments, and policies that support our health and independence.

But the stark truth is that if you are better-off financially, you are likely to enjoy an extra 17 healthy years of life compared to others. Whereas if you are less well-off you are likely to die much younger than other people.

We are told that today’s widening gap between the health of the better-off and the worst-off is a result of complex, environmental, social and economic changes. We are also told that Scotland is the 14th richest nation in the world. How can these unfair differences in health possibly be acceptable in 21st century Scotland?

When the NHS and the welfare state were set up, it was because people said access to health care and support for the most vulnerable should be a basic human right. In 1948 there were actually fewer unfair differences between people’s health than they are now.

Fast forward to the year 2030. There will be many of us over the ages of 65 and 90 and a sharp decline in the number of children, and people in their 20s and 30s. This suggests we need to think now about how we will deliver health and social care for those who need it in 20 years from now, as it would be wrong to pretend that everyone will lead healthy, active and independent lives up until they die.

It also means public money and policy must be directed at preventing inequalities arising in the first place. Think about it: to avoid people’s later years being ruined by unnecessary poor health means giving children being born today the best possible start and life chances. Then we need to involve individuals and communities who use public services much more in their design and delivery, and take a joined-up approach to delivering those services, to reduce duplication and save money.

At Voluntary Health Scotland we are working with third sector partners, the Scottish Government and the NHS to address all these issues jointly. We all need to ask ourselves what has to happen to ensure people’s old age isn’t 
blighted by poor health simply as a result of not having been very 
well-off.

• Claire Stevens is chief officer at Voluntary Health Scotland