The general health and wellbeing of the population is one of the most significant risks posed by the current cost-of-living crisis. The Health Foundation found that 57 per cent of people believe that the rising cost of living presents a high or very high threat to public health.
The cost-of-living crisis is expected by many commentators to have a negative impact on public health and to add further strain on healthcare services, as people seek care for preventable illnesses.
Currently, NHS England spend £1.3 billion each year treating preventable conditions caused by cold and damp homes, without factoring in the effects of the current cost-of-living crisis.
In this article, we will be exploring how the cost-of-living crisis may intensify health inequalities and how GPs could utilise technology to support community access to primary care in preparation for a possible rise in demand.
Why is the cost-of-living crisis affecting our health?
With rising food and energy costs, many sections of society may struggle to afford the essentials that help maintain their health, such as cooking healthy food and heating their homes adequately during the winter. Along with an impact to physical health, these pressures may also lead to increased levels of stress and worry which can also have negative effects on mental health.
The potential impact to health and wellbeing is expected therefore to place additional pressure on hospitals, general practices and social care services.
How could the cost-of-living crisis heighten health inequalities?
Rising food costs
According to the Office of National Statistics, food prices increased by 16.4 per cent between October 2021/22, the highest rise since 1977. This would mean that on average, groceries cost members of the public around £756 more per year.
With soaring food prices, some people may not be able to afford certain food options or even choose to skip meals all together, potentially widening health inequalities further. According to The Food Foundation’s September 2022 survey, 58 per cent of households who experience food insecurity are cutting back on buying fruit more than ever before. They also found that disabled and non-white groups are seeing the highest levels of food insecurity.
Without getting proper nutrition from healthy food, issues such as decreased immunity to illnesses and poor mental health can impact on people’s health and wellbeing.
Rising energy costs
In October 2022, households were paying around 89 per cent more for their electricity compared to last year. It has been estimated that rising energy costs will force two thirds of households into fuel poverty, ‘exacerbating health inequalities that were already widened during the pandemic.’
According to the Institute of Health Equity, ‘households living on low incomes, households with dependent children, households’ home to people living with disabilities, and minority ethnic households’ are more likely to experience fuel poverty.
Rising energy costs may mean that some people can’t afford to heat their homes as they did before. Being a particular concern during the winter period, cold and damp living conditions add to health complications such as respiratory difficulties and poor mental health.
These are a just a couple of factors of the cost-of-living crisis that may worsen health inequalities in the UK. The cost-of-living crisis is anticipated to put increased pressure on the NHS and social care services, as people seek medical attention and mental health support.
It may be especially impactful in primary care, as it is the first port of call for health support, so is predicted to experience a rise in demand for services.
What can digital tools do to help people access healthcare?
The Health Foundation has stated in a recent study that the biggest challenges for primary care patients are long waiting times for appointments (although, this has reduced from 46% to 40%) and difficulties booking appointments.
Having a digital solution with functionalities that help support health equality can be a step towards fairer access to care during these difficult times.
Artificial intelligence (AI) has the benefit of flagging urgent requests and triaging them appropriately, so patients who need quicker responses are prioritised over less urgent queries. AI can also highlight mental health related queries so those people can be quickly directed onto the appropriate community services.
Online consultations are especially beneficial to patients with physical disabilities and those living in rural areas, as they offer an alternative to visiting their GP practice in person, saving them time and resource.
For both general practice staff and patients, being able to communicate using different methods in one system, such as SMS text and image uploading alongside video calls, means that all types of preferences and accessibility options are available to all using the service without having to rely on additional software.
Free-text and language translation
Utilising free-text and translation functionality during the appointment booking processes, encourages fairer access to primary care. These factors particularly support patients for whom English is not their first language.
Take a look at the PATCHS online consultation solution and our Health inequalities in Primary Care whitepaper to find out more about how digital transformation can support equal access to primary care.