Tackling health inequalities: what does the data tell us and how can it help?

Health inequalities in Scotland are significant. Every year we hear about how Scotland has some of the biggest gaps in the health and wellbeing of the poorest and richest in society. In some cases, Scotland has the largest gaps in equality in the whole of Europe. And in many instances, they are rising. Scotland also has the lowest life expectancy of all UK countries.

A number of studies and research projects have been commissioned to try to identify the key indicators and factors that are creating and reinforcing these inequalities, and what sorts of interventions would work best to try and reduce or eradicate them altogether. It is hoped that by conducting research, and compiling data, policymakers can use this to identify groups and geographic areas where health inequalities are significant, and to intervene to reduce them, with data to help back up and evaluate the effectiveness of these interventions. In Scotland, work is being done by a number of organisations including the Scottish Government, Glasgow Centre for Population Health (GCPH) and Public Health Innovation Network Scotland (PHINS).

What indicators and factors are being measured?

Income inequality has a related impact on health inequalities, and the scale of low pay is significant. The relationship between health inequalities, poverty and household income is one which has been explored at length and is often highlighted as one of the main factors which influences health inequalities. Studies which look at income, and also at relative levels of deprivation can provide useful comparison points, with comparable datasets on employment status and income readily available at a national and local level. Data also considers trends over time, comparing pre- and post-economic crash data, as well as relative earnings and expenditure relative to inflation and the rising cost of living. Other factors include age (those under 25 and earning a lower minimum wage for example) and by gender, with more women in lower paid, lower skilled and part time or insecure work.

How usable is the research being created?

The research which examines health inequalities explores a whole range of interrelated factors, and highlights just how complex the landscape of inequalities is. Creating a clear and holistic picture of all of the factors which contribute to health inequalities is not easy. Many studies, while detailed and effective, are niche, and focus on a very limited number of factors across a limited demographic source. As a result, questions have been raised about the utility of this research and its applicability and scalability at a national level. In an attempt to tackle this, combined data sets are being produced which provide opportunities for comparison across data from a range of studies.

The “Triple I” tool from NHS Health Scotland is designed to help policy designers to create effective interventions to reduce health inequalities. A second edition of the tool is due to be released in 2018/19. Triple I aims to provide national and local decision makers with practical tools and interpreted research findings about investing in interventions to reduce health inequalities in Scotland. It does this by modelling the potential impact of different interventions and policies on overall population health and health inequalities.

 

What can be done to act on the data?

While the research being produced is high quality, and thorough in relation to findings, the real question is what can actually be done with the research, and what steps can policymakers and practitioners take to use the findings to inform their own practice.

There are, researchers suggest, significant opportunities presented by the recent research which has been done on income inequality. In particular, they cite the public sector and public sector pay as a key way to reduce the income, and therefore the inequality gap, particularly among higher earners and those who would be considered “working poor” or “just about managing”. In Scotland, significantly more people are employed in the public sector than in any other part of the UK, and there is, researchers suggest, an opportunity to better align and increase low wages to help to reduce the gap.

The adoption of new initiatives, such as the “housing first model”, which is due to be rolled out in Glasgow to help homeless people break the cycle of homelessness, are also opportunities not only to address inequalities, but to ensure that long term help and support is in place to prevent any relapse into chaotic or risky behaviour. In relation to housing first, the savings on front line services such as emergency admissions to hospital, or contact with the police after committing a crime are significant, and while more in depth research is needed to create a full cost benefit analysis model of the scheme and its effectiveness, early studies show that the impact on health and wellbeing on those who had previously been homeless is huge in terms of reducing inequalities and improving wellbeing. However further data on homelessness in Scotland shows how far we have to go, and that housing first is only one mechanism which can be used to begin this process of reducing inequalities among the most and least deprived communities in Scotland.

Alternatively, some have suggested a more radical overhaul of how we distribute welfare and wealth within the country. Research has been coming thick and fast on the subject of a “citizens basic income”, particularly following the trial which was rolled out in Finland (the findings of which have not yet been published). Research on how this could impact on inequalities is not widespread yet, as pilots have been small scale, However, it is suggested that a total overhaul of welfare, replacing it instead with a citizen’s basic income would be a more effective way to reduce inequalities across the board, including in health.

Summing up

Health inequalities are significant in Scotland. Much of the research focuses on the impact of deprivation, poverty and low income on health inequalities and how, in order to tackle health inequalities in Scotland we must also tackle some of the other significant social problems within our communities, including low income and insecure work, and the impact of homelessness or chaotic lifestyles on health.

Data can be used in a number of ways to help inform policy decisions, some more radical than others. But creating a complete understanding of inequality in Scotland is challenging. It is up to researchers and policymakers to work together to create a better understanding of the conditions and factors which contribute to inequality, and what can be done to help tackle systemic and entrenched inequalities in our communities through policy levers and evidence based policy making.

If you liked this article you may also be interested in:

Universal basic income: too good to be true?

A world of evidence … but can we trust that it is any good?

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