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Dr Bola Owolabi: NHS would be ‘financially illiterate’ to ignore health inequalities

Dr Bola Owolabi: NHS would be ‘financially illiterate’ to ignore health inequalities
By Jess Hacker
16 June 2023

NHS organisations would be ‘financially illiterate’ to ignore health inequalities, NHS England’s director for healthcare inequalities improvement has said.

Speaking at the NHSConfedExpo this week, Bola Owolabi pointed to disparities in Covid and cancer outcomes as the best ‘business case’ for tackling them.

Dr Owolabi highlighted that during the pandemic, people among the poorest 20% of the population had a Covid mortality rate double that of those in the 20% most affluent.

And those among the poorest 20% in England, the risk of developing lung cancer is two and a half times greater than the richest 20% in the population.

But the rate of people from the poorest areas receiving an earlier lung cancer diagnosis has ‘grown exponentially’ she said, with recent data showing that NHS lung MOTs had boosted stage one and two diagnoses from 30% in 2019 to 34.5% in 2022 in deprived communities.

She said: ‘I will go as far as saying it is financially illiterate to not address health inequalities. You have only got to look at the numbers to realise that there is a financial illiteracy to not addressing health inequalities as a priority.’

She added that not doing so was costing patients healthy years and presented a significant cost of care to the system.

Dr Owolabi said: ‘If you consider the fact that actually people from most deprived communities, they develop long term conditions earlier, those conditions accumulate faster, it means they live with them for a lot longer, which for many people then means earlier exit from the workforce, and you begin to see the loss in terms of the human capital.

‘We lose the community contribution we could have made, the tax revenues they could have made, the higher healthcare expenditure, that all of that then commands, you begin to see that actually, the conversation about health inequalities is not just a moral or ethical imperative, it actually costs us as a system.’

Lord Victor Adebowale, chair of the NHS Confederation, recently told Healthcare Leader that the NHS alone cannot solve health inequalities and that central policy change is needed.

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