Poverty hinders access to timely NHS care, think tank warns

The situation was described as a ‘cruel irony’ as one of the ‘founding principles of the NHS is that it is free at the point of need’.

Those in deprived areas are more likely to require expensive emergency care due to challenges in accessing services
Those in deprived areas are more likely to require expensive emergency care due to challenges in accessing services (Peter Byrne/PA)

People living in poverty find it harder to access timely NHS care and are more likely to require expensive emergency treatment, according to think tank The King’s Fund.

It is calling for more to be done to address the situation in deprived communities while tackling poverty.

Health chiefs said a “healthy economy relies on a healthy population”, and urged the Government to recognise the importance of investing in public health.

Analysis by The King’s Fund, commissioned by charity the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, found deprived people find it “harder to live healthy lives, harder to access NHS services, live with greater illness and die earlier than the rest of the population”.

It added that while the links between ill health and poverty are not new, the cost-of-living crisis and pressure on NHS services are worsening the issue.

Saoirse Mallorie, senior analyst and lead author at The King’s Fund, said: “Our analysis highlights that not only do people living in poverty have shorter lives, they also spend a higher proportion of their lives with health problems.

“To improve the nation’s health and use NHS resources in the best way, tackling poverty must be as much of a priority as bringing down waiting lists.

“While the NHS can do more to treat the symptoms of people experiencing poverty, it cannot alone address the root causes.

“Bolder action from government, economic and civic society is needed to lift millions of people out of poverty and break this vicious cycle of poverty and its impact on poor health.”

The report claims 30% of people in the most deprived areas have been forced to visit A&E, call 999 or go to a walk-in centre as they cannot get a GP appointment.

This is compared to 10% of people in the least deprived areas, it said.

Length of stay in hospital critical care beds is also longer in deprived groups, according to the analysis.

Between 2017/18 and 2022/23, the average length of stay for those in poverty increased by 27% compared to 13% among those in wealthier areas.

King’s Fund chief executive Sarah Woolnough described the situation as a “cruel irony” and called for widening health inequalities to be “be tackled head on” by the next government.

“One of the founding principles of the NHS is that it is free at the point of need, yet our analysis shows the cruel irony that many people living in poverty find it harder than others to access the timely care that could help them better manage their health conditions and prevent future illness,” she said.

“The number of people living in deep poverty in the UK has risen, and recent life expectancy figures – a fundamental measure of a nation’s health – show a depressingly stark gap between the most and least deprived areas of the UK.”

Sir Julian Hartley, chief executive of NHS Providers, said: “It’s vital the Government recognises how important investment in public health is in reducing rates of poverty to tackle the many factors behind deep-rooted health inequalities.

“Much more funding is needed if we are going to reverse the effects of years of local public health cuts which have undermined efforts to improve people’s physical and mental health and wellbeing and added to strain on stretched NHS services.

“A healthy economy relies on a healthy population. The Government and the NHS must work hand in hand to create the picture of health we all want to see.”

Chris McCann, campaigns director of Healthwatch England, said: “We know that people living in deprived areas are waiting longer for GP and hospital care and are more likely to experience cancelled appointments.

“People struggling financially are also much more affected by long waits compared to those who are very comfortable. They can find themselves unable to work, they live in pain, and their mental health suffers.”

Mr McCann said Healthwatch has “warned that the NHS is in danger of becoming a two-tier service in dentistry and elective care”.

“Healthcare leaders should step up to the plate on these disparities by improving measurement and understanding,” he added.

“Data should be collected and published on the inequalities in waiting times, experiences, outcomes and improvements that diverse groups are reporting.”

Dr Nichola Ashby, deputy chief nurse at the Royal College of Nursing, warned that growing inequalities are also “putting additional demand on nursing staff working in an already over-stretched health sector”.

She added that the staff the college represents sees the impact poverty has on people’s health “every day” but “they are often powerless to stop the root causes”.

Professor Kamila Hawthorne, chair of the Royal College of GPs, said the “unfortunate reality” is that there is not enough family doctors to meet current demand, and GPs “witness daily the devastating health effects that poverty and deprivation are having on patients”.

A Government spokesperson said: “We are putting record funding into the NHS and there are 1.7 million fewer people living in absolute poverty compared to 2010, including 400,000 children.

“We continue to support people with cost-of-living support worth an average of £3,800 per household, and as inflation continues to come down, we are rewarding hard work by raising the National Living Wage and cutting taxes, and our Back to Work Plan will break down barriers for over a million people to find, stay and succeed in work.”