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Acute hospitals need to take more action on health inequalities

I recently interviewed the board members of an integrated care system. This piece of work has challenged my ideas about how we best address health inequalities.

When it comes to tackling health inequalities I have tended to focus on those people and sectors who are most passionate and engaged with this agenda. Namely, the voluntary sector, general practice, communities themselves and local government.  I continue to think this is important. However I think that we have ended up leaving the most powerful part of the local health and care system out of the discussion – the acute hospitals. 

This has been a mistake.

Our expectations of what the acute acute sector can do with regard to health inequalities has been too narrow. When the acute hospital sector does engage it tends to  default to rather limited outward facing areas:

All of these actions leave the most important part of hospital provision – clinical services – off the table! 

It is comparatively rare to find examples where the hospital has taken responsibility for designing and leading a service that aims to improve a patients health in the round – generally hospital services focus on delivering a specific clinical intervention that ignores the context within which people live.

When a hospital does take a more person centred approach – magically – services becomes sensitive to health inequalities! Here are three examples:

London Homeless Pathway – Pathway helps the NHS to create hospital teams to support homeless patients and in some hospitals, Pathway Care Navigators: people who were once homeless to support homeless patients.

Major Trauma Unit Sheffield Teaching Hospital – A dedicated welfare rights service provided by Citizens Advice Sheffield for patients at the major trauma unit – funded by the Sheffield Hospitals Charity.

Guys and St Thomas’ Hospital Charity – take a place-based approach, addressing a small number of complex health challenges at a time. They work with local partners in Lambeth and Southwark and share their findings with others tackling similar issues.

We need to develop a new narrative that recognises the crucial role that acute hospitals should play here. Rather than trying to develop strategies that seek to ‘pull’ funding out of the acute sector we need to recognise the role of the acute sector and expect and support them to change. 

What these examples tell us is that it is possible to work with clinicians to create a more inclusive model for good clinical practice, by recognising that the wider context of peoples lives affects their ability to engage with clinical services which then impacts on their health and how quickly they get better.

Here are some suggestions:

  • We need to engage with Acute Hospitals and work with them to develop their own Health Inequality Action Plans that link their services to the wider population and the circumstances they face.
  • The work of Guys and St Thomas charity provides insights into what this might mean but we need to go further. For example services such as Accident and Emergency should be used as a bellwether for local health systems – who uses them and why are indicators of socio-economic pressure and wider health system failure – I don’t think that local health systems use this data systematically or effectively to help shape wider strategies.
  • The examples I gave above with regard to homelessness and major trauma show that a more inclusive version of what constitutes good clinical practice is possible. Both of these examples affirm that good clinical services must recognise that a patients vulnerability and lack of personal agency can be affected by factors outside the hospital environment. These examples show that good clinical practice inside hospitals involves more inclusive actions which can improve a patients ability to use health services effectively, help their recovery and be more cost effective.

Finally, there is of course added urgency here – the over representation of people from BAME and deprived communities among those admitted to hospitals during the pandemic and who now face long periods of recovery; must provide a further spur to considering how to develop inclusive services that respond to the clinical and social needs of people who have experienced a traumatic illness.


What do you think?

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