Significant challenges in health inequalities warn BMA Scotland

There are still “significant challenges” to overcome in tackling Scotland’s “stubbornly persistent” health inequalities, doctors’ leaders have warned.

The British Medical Association (BMA) in Scotland is calling for integrated action to be taken in a bid to reduce the gap that exists between the health of those living in the poorest parts of the country and those in more affluent communities.

MSPs on Holyrood’s Health and Sport Committee are investigating the issue, taking evidence from doctors.

In a statement, BMA Scotland said while the approach taken since devolution had ” generally been well received”, it added that “health inequalities have remained stubbornly persistent”.

It warned welfare reforms and economic pressures ” seem likely to exacerbate health inequalities”, and said as a result of that “there are still significant challenges to overcome in reducing the health inequalities gap between the richest and poorest in our society and improving general population health”.

Public Health Minister Michael Matheson said health inequalities “can only be solved by tackling the root causes of inequality” beyond the NHS.

The BMA also highlighted the importance of employment, education and housing policies in improving health.

” It is widely recognised that the most important policy levers for responding to health inequalities are out with the realm of health policy and include employment, education, fiscal, housing and other welfare-related policies,” it said.

“An integrated approach to health inequalities is essential for reducing these health differences.”

Dr Andrew Buist, the deputy chair of the BMA’s Scottish GP Committee, will appear before the committee today along with others from the medical profession, including Dr Pauline Craig, the head of equality at NHS Health Scotland.

In a statement to MSPs, the health board said inequalities had risen because the health of people in the least deprived groups had improved at a faster rate than those from the most deprived groups.

NHS Health Scotland added: ” Health inequalities are strongly influenced by underlying inequalities in power, money and wealth which in turn influence access to other resources, facilities, services and opportunities.

“The strongest action to reduce health inequalities is to reduce inequality in economic and social conditions but action can be taken at other societal levels to prevent and mitigate the impact of inequalities on health.

“Effective action by the NHS includes using our research to influence policy change, partnership planning to improve living and working conditions, focusing on the early years to maximise prevention and resilience, and mitigating the impact of inequalities on health by providing intensive or tailored support in proportion to need.”

Mr Matheson said: “Scotland’s health is improving, with people living longer, healthier lives. But despite our best efforts, deeply ingrained health inequalities persist. The problem cannot be solved with health solutions alone as health inequalities are caused by entrenched problems of poverty, educational under-attainment, unemployment and poor mental wellbeing.

“It is our belief that health inequalities in Scotland can only be solved by tackling the root causes of inequality, and taking the fight beyond the NHS.

“Westminster cuts and welfare reforms have made our task considerably more difficult. The Scottish Government believes that only with independence can we create a fairer society where we can really get to the fundamental causes of health inequality.”